Today, we’ll bring you new angles on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, track the war’s impact on election-year politics in France, Hungary, Brazil, and the US, and walk to the brink with Pakistan’s Imran Khan.
We’ve also got your Hump Day recs! Thank you very much for reading Signal. Please tell your friends to sign up here.Willis Sparks
Oil ban, Churchill, Polish MiGs, Putin's fixes
Biden bans Russian oil, alone. The US president banned imports of Russian oil on Tuesday in a bid to increase economic pressure on the Kremlin. It’s not clear how effective this will be, given that the US accounts for less than 10% of Russia’s daily exports. Meanwhile, Europe, which slurps up almost half of those exports, has refused to join the oil ban for now, and there is virtually no chance of major customers like China or India turning down Russian crude. Meanwhile, Biden’s move carries political risks at home, as average national gas prices have already hit a record high of $4.17 per gallon. Taking more oil off the market could push prices even higher. As we head toward the midterms, how much economic pain will Americans take on behalf of Ukraine?
Zelensky plays Churchill. In a video address to a packed House of Commons on Tuesday, Ukraine’s embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked two famous English wordsmiths — William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill — in an impassioned plea for more sanctions against Russia and the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets,” he said, adapting Churchill’s Dunkirk speech to his own country’s struggle against the Russian war machine. Zelensky received a standing ovation, but there is still little appetite among Western countries to risk direct combat with Russia by enforcing a no-fly zone.
Poland pledges jets to Ukraine … sort of. Warsaw has been firm that it won't transfer any of its MiG-29 jets to Ukraine directly, but it pledged on Tuesday to put them all at Washington’s disposal for onward transfer to Kyiv if America so chooses. US officials said, however, that the offer was likely untenable, citing logistical concerns and questioning the rationale. Ukrainians want the Polish MiGs because they are based on Soviet-era planes that Ukrainian pilots are familiar with and will thus require minimal training.
Putin tries to blunt the pain. With sanctions increasing and Western firms exiting from Russia, Putin on Tuesday signed a package of economic support measures for Russian people and businesses. The package boosts benefits for pensioners, slashes red tape for businesses, and eases the import and purchase of pharmaceuticals. Over the past two weeks, the Russian ruble has lost nearly a third of its value against the dollar amid the worst economic crisis Russians have faced in a generation.
Pakistani PM in trouble
Pakistan’s embattled Prime Minister Imran Khan will soon face a no-confidence vote. A motion was filed on Tuesday by 100 opposition lawmakers who blame him for the country’s ailing economy and high inflation. After the motion was accepted, opposition supporters took to the streets of the capital, Islamabad, and other cities to demand Khan step down within 24 hours. Khan, for his part, remained defiant, insisting that he'll survive all attempts to unseat him — as he did exactly one year ago. To stay in power, Khan needs 172 votes in the 342-seat assembly, where the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf Party and its allies have a slim majority. However, eight members of Khan's party have threatened to withdraw their support, so the PM is on very shaky ground. The no-confidence vote could take weeks to schedule. Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Pakistan’s powerful army, which officially says it stays out of politics but has a long history of doing the opposite in the nuclear-armed nation.
Hong Kong’s COVID apocalypseTwo years in, Hong Kong now has the world’s highest daily per capita death rate from the COVID-19 virus. The 7.5-million-strong city-state has closely followed China’s zero-COVID policy and shunned mRNA vaccines, which means few people were exposed to the virus and developed antibodies before the latest variant hit. The COVID crisis has already delayed Hong Kong’s chief executive “election” by six weeks. Carrie Lam — the current leader, who has yet to say whether she’ll run for reelection — initially wanted to test the entire population, but powerful business leaders pushed back amid fears of a total lockdown. Hong Kong must now decide whether to relax its zero-COVID approach despite rising deaths, or risk more businesses relocating to its longtime competitor Singapore.
The Biden administration on Tuesday banned US oil imports from Russia to punish its invasion of Ukraine. Although the US — the world's second-largest producer of crude — is a net exporter of black gold and far less dependent on Russian oil than European countries, the move will likely still hurt Americans via higher gas prices until other US oil suppliers ramp up production to fill the void. We take a look at where the US buys its crude from.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shifting politics inside every major country in the world. Here are four countries holding big elections this year — with details on how Vladimir Putin’s war is making a difference in Hungary, France, Brazil, and the United States.
Hungary — parliamentary elections on April 3
No EU head of government has friendlier ties with Putin than Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But Russia’s invasion, says Mujtaba Rahman, head of Eurasia Group’s Europe desk, “is politically problematic for Orbán because it rekindles memories of the 1956 Soviet invasion for both pro- and anti-Orbán voters.” On the eve of what’s expected to be a close election, Hungary’s prime minister has had to strike a delicate balance on the war.
On the one hand, despite Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia, Orbán decided quickly after the invasion to back EU sanctions on Russia. On the other, fear of losing crucial pro-Russia voters to far-right election rivals encouraged him to oppose some EU plans, such as shipments of European weapons to Ukraine’s army.
In the end, Orbán’s dexterity in managing this crisis may boost his party’s chances next month.
France — presidential election on April 10 and April 24
Putin has done France’s President Emmanuel Macron an enormous favor. By starting a war during France’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, he’s handed Macron the chance to play crucial European statesman rather than presidential candidate urgently hustling for votes.
The war has also sucked oxygen from the campaign of his rival, far-right favorite Marine Le Pen, who has “an embarrassing history of admiration for Vladimir Putin,” according to Rahman. In fact, her party courted controversy by borrowing money from a Russian-owned bank in 2014, when the National Rally Party was opposing Western sanctions against Russia over its seizure of Crimea.
Macron has now become a strong favorite to win a second-round victory on April 24.
Brazil — general election on October 2
Further afield, the war in Ukraine creates risks for Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Problem one is that he made a considerable show of visiting Putin in Moscow just days before the invasion to express “solidarity with Russia.” For some Brazilian voters, that’s an embarrassing reminder of Bolsonaro’s own controversial military background and hyper-macho political rhetoric. After the invasion, the president insisted that Brazil would remain “neutral,” alienating some voters on both sides.
But the Russian invasion’s biggest impact on Brazilian politics this year will be economic. In presidential polls, Bolsonaro now trails his main rival, former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, in part because high inflation (10% in 2021) has taken a toll on the purchasing power of millions of voters. A lasting global inflation shock, exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war, will undermine his chances of catching up.
US — midterm elections on November 6 and the 2024 presidential election
A recent poll found that 74% of American respondents said Russia’s invasion was unjustified, and 76% expressed a negative personal view of Vladimir Putin. But this is a question on which Democrats are far more united than Republicans, casting a shadow over GOP expectations of victory in November.
That vote is still eight months away, and President Biden’s relative unpopularity probably will deliver Congress to the GOP. By summer, Russia’s role in high gasoline prices will matter less than it does today to frustrated consumers.
But what about the 2024 presidential election? Just 3% of that poll’s respondents who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 were willing to say Biden is “doing a better job leading his country” than Putin is. If Trump runs again, his continuing public admiration for Putin — the former president called the Ukraine invasion “genius” — could cost him considerable support. After all, 58% of Republican voters back Ukraine at the moment.Even if Trump settles for the role of GOP kingmaker, his support of Putin could divide both Republican leaders and voters — and alienate some GOP-leaning independents. Especially in the highly likely event that Russia features prominently in election-year headlines.
What are the ramifications of the US ban on Russian oil imports? For Ian Bremmer, it’s not clear yet, but it could make Western allies look weaker because the US didn’t coordinate with them.
Any surprises on Russia’s list of unfriendly countries? Monaco and Switzerland, where Russians do a lot of business.
Is Xi Jinping facing a hard wartime choice for China? Not in his view. Ian believes that the Chinese want to avoid another Cold War, but if it happens, it’s very clear whose side they'll be on. Hint: not Biden’s.
Watch this week’s World In 60 Seconds here.
Hard Numbers: Golden Arches close in Russia, Kremlin lists its enemies, nickel blows up, North Korean nuclear program stirsTracy Moran
850: McDonalds will temporarily close its 850 restaurants in Russia in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The 62,000 people it employs there will, however, stay on payroll. The opening of the first McDonalds in the Soviet Union, in 1990, was a historic and optimistic moment during the Cold War.
48: On Tuesday, the Kremlin published a list of 48 countries and territories deemed “unfriendly” to Russia. The US, EU, and, oddly, Taiwan are all on it. A recent Kremlin decree permits Russians to repay any foreign currency debts to these “unfriendlies” in rubles. However, the decree does not oblige creditors to accept the nearly worthless Russian currency.
100,000: The London Metal Exchange suspended trading of nickel on Tuesday after prices more than doubled to over $100,000 per metric ton. Russia is the world’s third-largest nickel producer, and the war in Ukraine is fueling concern about the supply of the metal, which is used to make stainless steel and EV batteries.
4: Roughly four years since North Korea officially shuttered its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, experts have detected “very early signs of activity” there. Analysts believe the Hermit Kingdom may be gearing up to resume nuclear and long-range missile testing. Not now, North Korea!
Read: Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams — by Charles King. Here is the tragic and triumphant biography of one of the world’s most fascinating cities. It’s a place where history, poetry, commerce, humor, and violence have collided for centuries. Sadly, this great place is making news this week for all the wrong reasons. — Willis
Watch: The Parisian Agency — Comment dit-on “super posh”? If you dream of buying a luxury home with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, you need to check out The Parisian Agency. This Netflix series (Season 2 just dropped) follows a family-run real estate business that sells increasingly posh digs in the French capital to an increasingly wealthy clientele. You’ll come away practicing your pronunciation of “luxe” and “tip-top” while salivating over decors ranging from Versailles-style opulence to Creole-chic cabins. — TracyDrink: Zubrowka — Now that many Western retailers are boycotting Russian vodka, and some US states are even banning it, try this Polish brand, my favorite. It’s lightly flavored with a blade of bison grass — which it’s named after — in each bottle. Best served neat or on the rocks, but it also goes well with a splash of apple juice. — Carlos
Words of wisdom
“Why bother remembering a past that cannot be made into a present?”
— Søren Kierkegaard
This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks, Carlos Santamaria and Alex Kliment. Edited by Tracy Moran. Graphic by Paige Fusco. Spiritual counsel from Gabrielle Debinski and Frozen stars singing for Ukraine.