Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Russia Builds Up Troops at Border with Ukraine, Worrying US and NATO
2. Has Excessive Caution Undermined the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout?
Russia Builds Up Troops at Border with Ukraine, Worrying US and NATO
A tank speeds down the railway near Russia’s eastern border with the Donbass region of Ukraine. April 2nd, 2021. Source: Twitter / @pmakela1
A seven-year conflict has been simmering between Russia and Ukraine since the Kremlin illegally invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Now, Vladimir Putin appears to be turning up the heat.
According to new reports, the Russian military is orchestrating a large buildup of vehicles and troops along key border regions with Ukraine. In one video spreading on Twitter, a seemingly endless line of Russian tanks flanks the bridge to Crimea. In another video, more tanks speed down the railway near Russia’s eastern border with the Donbass region of Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been in armed conflict with the Ukrainian government since 2014.
General Khomchak, the head of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, reported that Russia is expected to deploy an additional 20,000-25,000 soldiers to Crimea and the Eastern border region, representing “a threat to the military security of the [Ukrainian] state.”
Russia’s military escalation comes shortly after renewed military exercises in Crimea and a flare up of tensions in Donbass, where six Ukrainian soldiers were killed by separatists in recent weeks. Since the start of the conflict, there have been more than 13,000 casualties and 29 ceasefire agreements, each of which has failed to end the violence between the seperatist rebels backed by Russia and Ukraine.
Is Russia readying for another invasion of Ukraine?
Russia’s ultimate game plan is still largely unknown, but strategists have outlined several possible explanations for the recent military buildup on the border.
Some experts have suggested that Putin may be attempting to provoke heightened conflict in the Donbass in order to create a pretext for taking greater military and legal control over the Eastern Ukranian territory.
In support of this prospect, these experts point to the fact that Putin will be facing another round of Duma elections in September, and may be looking to manufacture a small-scale war to drum up nationalism and win domestic support for his party. Relatedly, Putin could also be using this to distract from the recent unrest over the illegal detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Still, other strategists, like Taras Kuzio of the National University of Kyiv, are more dubious about the likelihood of a full-on invasion. Kuzio suggests that though Russia would certainly like to provoke a conflict in Eastern Ukraine, it is simply not feasible. “A conventional Russian invasion and occupation would require half of Russia’s entire armed forces and would face serious resistance,” Kuzio told the Atlantic Council. “The cost in terms of lives, money, and international isolation would be disastrous.”
If Russia is not in fact planning an offensive, then the most likely explanation for the recent military buildup is that Putin is testing the international community’s (and the new Biden Administration’s) stomach for engagement--a test they have failed many times before.
How should the United States and NATO respond?
The United States has already taken steps in the right direction. In the past week, the US President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have all called their Ukrainian counterparts and assured them of the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty. And there are reports that over the past 10 days, the US has delivered 350 tons of military equipment to Ukraine.
Moving forward, the U.S should send further aid. It should also make clear that if the Kremlin escalates, America will levy further sanctions on Russia, including on major banks such as Vnesheconombank as well as on Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline currently being built between Russia and Europe.
Meanwhile the Ukrainian President has implored NATO to accelerate his country’s membership application, insisting that it is the only way to end the conflict in Donbass. This, however, might be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Ukraine’s accession into NATO could deter Russia; on the other, the Kremlin could see Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO as a threat to what it considers its ‘sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe. This could, in turn, cause Russia to lash out further.
Ultimately, the situation on the Ukranian border remains extremely delicate. One thing is certain: appeasing Putin through non-engagement is not an option. America’s failure to use all diplomatic and financial means at its disposal to counter Putin’s aggression over the last decade has only empowered him further.
Has Excessive Caution Undermined the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout?
The AstraZeneca factory in Baltimore. The U.S. is currently sitting on 30 million doses of the vaccine. Credit: Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun
There's a lot to celebrate about America’s vaccination campaign: it exceeded expectations and has been one of the most successful rollouts in the world, promising a path to liberation from a virus that’s killed more Americans than all our country’s wars over the past 75 years. However, it’s worth asking whether the U.S. could be doing even better. Has the government been too timid, eschewing promising, novel interventions in the name of “sticking to the science”?
George Mason University economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen contend that examples of excessive caution include:
Not utilizing the “first doses first” vaccination strategy, which would mean prioritizing giving first doses of vaccines to as many people as possible before administering second doses to stretch out our scarce supply of vaccines. The approach has had promising results in Britain, which has given 15% more of its population first doses and therefore reduced cases and deaths more effectively than the U.S.
Setting an unnecessarily high bar for the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine even though the extra doses are needed, 111 other countries have approved it, there is substantial evidence it is safe and effective, and a factory in Baltimore is currently producing it.
Failing to authorize at-home rapid testing, which Harvard and UCLA researchers conservatively estimate could have saved 10,000 lives (see also).
Not using human challenge trials, which test treatments on willing volunteers to accelerate progress, and some speculate could have significantly accelerated the development of vaccines.
Is excessive caution a real problem or a phantom menace?
On the one hand, maintaining a certain level of caution remains important.
Whenever we discuss medical decisions that could affect the entire population, a single mistake could have significant repercussions affecting millions of people. Furthermore, blunders like Dr. Fauci’s assertion at the beginning of the pandemic that people did not need to wear masks can undermine the trust at the foundation of successful public health efforts. (Notably, Fauci made this misstatement in an effort to conserve masks for healthcare workers.)
However, it is important to note that waiting has costs as well. Tyler Cowen writes that in its overriding focus to avoid making errors of commission, the American government has instead made grievous errors of omission. In other words, in trying to avoid making incorrect decisions for which it could receive blame, health authorities have forfeited chances to save lives.
Thinking this way forces us to reckon with hard questions: Had the AstraZeneca vaccine been approved, or human challenge trials used, or more at-home rapid testing been approved faster, how many lives could we have saved? The FDA waited weeks to schedule Emergency Use Authorization hearings, a decision which Dr. Fauci publicly defended. Had they acted quicker, how many fewer people might have lost friends or loved ones?
What does this say about how we as a society grapple with risk?
To be sure, there was a time when greater caution was warranted. At the pandemic’s outset, we lacked information on the nature of the virus. In this context, the inept federal response, the refusal of the President to model appropriate behavior, the lack of honest communication, and a host of other mistakes had tragic consequences. However, more than one year into the pandemic, armed with more information, leaders and institutions should not be afraid to take reasonable risks to help as many people as possible. Instead, out of a fear of committing sins of commission, many leaders have chosen the “wait-and-see” approach, limiting our ability to improve (and possibly save) many lives. At the same time, an obsessive focus on avoiding risk in one area, may blind us to considerable downsides in another.
For instance, despite the significant evidence demonstrating that opening schools is safe, many areas have been hesitant to do so at great cost both to the students (particularly lower-income students) and their parents. Or consider the messaging that people who have been vaccinated should essentially not change their behavior. With vaccine hesitancy already a growing problem, this could further depress demand for the vaccine among certain populations. This approach can also lead to misallocation of resources. Some organizations emphasize sanitizing all surfaces even in the face of strong evidence that they are not a significant vector of transmission, while failing to invest in other areas that might have a greater impact.
As a society, we must prioritize cost-benefit analysis that soberly weighs the risks and relative likelihoods of different outcomes. This path offers an escape from the reductionist rhetoric of the false dichotomy between scorched-earth laissez-faire and reflexive caution. As a society, we must make trade-offs; they will be hard, but approaching them honestly is vital.