What Happened Today: March 9, 2022
Interview with a sanctions expert; Israel visits Turkey; Entering The Tent
The Big Story
In a phone interview Wednesday with The Scroll, Ari Redbord—who used to work in the Terrorism and Financial Intelligence department at the United States Treasury, where he helped apply sanctions and other regulatory tools to stop illicit financial transactions—described the sanctions imposed against Russia over the past week as “unprecedented in their size and scale.” According to Redbord, “prior sanctions regimes took years to get to the place that we got to in just a few days.” Today, Redbord works at a blockchain intelligence company called TRM Labs, which investigates fraud and financial crimes. Since the financial war on Russia started, the specter of Moscow using cryptocurrencies to escape sanctions has revived fundamental questions about what cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are and whether they can be meaningfully regulated. Right on time, President Biden signed a new executive order Wednesday that calls on federal agencies to develop a plan for regulating crypto markets and explore the path to creating a “digital dollar.” We spoke with Redbord to get his insights into sanctions, cryptocurrencies, and the new executive order. Here’s some of what he had to say, lightly edited for clarity and length.
On the current sanctions regime:
Having been at the Treasury, [I know] it could take years to get to this level of economic sanctions. We are here in a week at what I described as “the nuclear option.” I could see a world—it would be very difficult and very complicated—where Russia is cut off entirely from the global financial system; a full-country-style blocking like we have with Iran and North Korea.
Can Putin and Russia use cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions?
I think the answer to that is no, not really. There’s not enough cryptocurrency in the world to prop up a G20 economy and to support an increasingly expensive war in Ukraine. Already, the 10 largest banks have been cut off from correspondent banking, including Sberbank, which is the largest. Cutting Sberbank off, in particular, is a death sentence. We’re talking about freezing and blocking 600-plus billion dollars of assets globally. We’re talking about impacting 1.5 trillion in trade. These are numbers that go beyond crypto’s entire market cap.
Could crypto provide some unique benefits in the current conflict?
It’s very likely that Russian people, sanctioned or not, may try to move rubles into cryptocurrency, just given the fact that we’re seeing massive inflation and a crashing currency. And that might not be such a bad thing—having non-sanctioned everyday Russians have access to a financial system that’s outside of the ruble could be a potential net positive.
We’re also seeing potentially the greatest use case that we’ve had to date for crypto, with these cross-border value transfers at the speed of the internet to support the Ukrainian resistance. Is that a huge amount? No, but we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars—I read somewhere around 50 today—just over the course of a week or so.
In The Back Pages: Why Zelensky’s Life Is More Meaningful Than Yours
→ With Russian forces still unable to capture any of Ukraine’s key cities, attacks on civilian centers continued Wednesday, the 14th day of the war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine. A Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol, according to multiple Ukrainian officials and video footage from the area showing wounded people being evacuated from a hospital complex. There are conflicting accounts of casualties from the strike, but the BBC cites one Ukrainian official saying that 14 people at the hospital were injured in the attack, including staff and patients. With Russia’s offensive stalled, Ukrainian officials cited by The Wall Street Journal said, “They expected civilian casualties to climb sharply as Russian troops who have been encircling cities now try to storm them.”
→ A map from the Institute for the Study of War shows the clawlike disposition of Russian forces in Ukraine as of March 9.
→ Israel’s President Isaac Herzog arrived in Ankara on Wednesday for meetings with Turkish leaders, the first visit to Turkey by a senior Israeli official in 14 years, and the sign of a potential thaw in relations. Once critical allies in the Middle East, the relationship between Israel and Turkey has been strained since shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist party rose to power in 2003. Despite Turkey’s support for Palestinian terrorist groups and complaints about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the two countries share a number of strategic interests in the region, including extracting natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and containing the fallout from the decade-long war in Syria, which sits on both of their borders. In 2020, Israel and Turkey both backed Muslim-majority Azerbaijan in its war with majority-Christian Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Trade between Israel and Turkey has never been better, hitting an all-time high of $8.4 billion last year, up from $6.2 billion in 2020.
→ Staff members of the United Nations, a public speaking club for sanctimonious hypocrites and mid-level officials who stalled out on the career ladder in their home countries, were temporarily instructed not to use the words war or invasion to describe what’s going on in Ukraine in a bid to avoid angering Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. An email from the UN’s Department of Global Communications with the subject “Ukraine crisis communications guidelines” that was seen by The Irish Times asks staff to use the terms conflict or military offensive and cites “some specific examples of language to use/not use at the moment,” including war and invasion. A subsequent email sent by the UN on Tuesday appeared to reverse the initial ban.
→ Several new studies show staggering educational losses among the United States’ schoolchildren during the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Roughly a third of children in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade have fallen “far behind” in reading—a 7% to 10% increase in the number measured at “far behind” compared to pre-pandemic levels. These losses have been especially dramatic among low-income children and children of color: 60% of students in some high-poverty schools in the Boston area are at high risk for reading problems, doubling the pre-pandemic percentage. These troubling numbers come as school districts are finally phasing out mask mandates, which, along with the extended school-shutdown policies, likely contributed to the decline and exacerbated a literacy crisis in the United States that long predates the pandemic.
→ Stagflation is back. A term famously coined in the 1970s to describe conditions of stagnant output and high inflation now describes our housing market and might soon apply to even more critical sectors of the U.S. economy. Amid a surge in demand for new homes, construction has been generally stagnant, largely owing to supply chain problems and restrictive zoning laws in many American cities. According to the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, home prices rose by 18.8% last year. As the war in Ukraine rages on, prices for energy and basic commodities, including grains and fertilizers, will continue to climb.
→ On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgia’s Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene bought shares of Lockheed Martin, Chevron, and NextEra Energy. All have since gone up. Congress’ proposals to prohibit such trading, however, will have loopholes large enough to drive a Lockheed Martin Ajax through. Even if the Ban Conflicted Trading Act and the TRUST in Congress Act both pass, a lawmaker’s spouse will still be allowed to trade stocks, and lawmakers can still trade funds freely. So while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will not be able to buy stock in Apple, her husband still can. (And, wouldn’t you know it, he just did, spending $2.9 mil in January on shares of Apple, Disney, AmEx, and Paypal. He must have a brilliant mind for the markets!) The Speaker, meanwhile, will still be able to buy into the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, a fund that owns 431.2 million shares of Apple.
Tablet religion writer Maggie Phillips on Why Zelensky’s Life Is More Meaningful Than Yours: Hint—It’s not for the reason you think
“Life is as it is,” Volodymyr Zelensky said recently, seated on a folding chair that he brought himself to a press conference on March 3. “My life today is wonderful. I believe that I am needed. That’s the most important sense of life, that you are needed, that you are not just an emptiness that breathes and walks and eats something.”
Jordan Peterson can retire. Joseph Campbell can rest easy in whatever eternal consciousness has absorbed him. If we were looking for an articulation of meaning and a model of heroism—and, I’d argue, we absolutely were—here it is. In Zelensky’s refusal to flee and his defiance in the face of near-certain death for the sake of a cause, people have been reminded of virtue and self-denial, and they are loving it.
It became common over the past few years in the United States to find think pieces appearing everywhere from Country Living to The New York Times about the wonders of hygge, the Danish concept evoking coziness, comfort, and consolation. But now the Danes are sending 2,700 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and are allowing their countrymen to go fight there, a decision their prime minister says they have made “with open eyes and a straight back,” inspired by a “unique heroic effort by the Ukrainian people to fight back a superior power.” It would seem even the cozy Danes have decided there are more vital things than hygge when the chips are down.
While I don’t want to romanticize Zelensky to the point where the myth overtakes the man, the image he projects is worth our attention. His instant apotheosis in Europe and the United States can be attributed to something resonating with people, something that they know internally even if they don’t express it consciously: that they were made for more. “The world offers you comfort,” goes a quote attributed to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “but you were not made for comfort; you were made for greatness.”
But what is great that is left for us these days? Family life has become something people can (and increasingly do) opt out of, since in the absence of a grander schema of meaningful sacrifice, the whole thing blows. Relationships give way to the normalization of social anxiety and antisocial behavior under the guise of “introverting,” a uniquely 21st-century neologism for avoiding the inconvenience of other people and their exhausting needs, demanding that society make space for your aversion to change, talking to people, and noise—things that until recently were priced in to human life. To keep chaos at bay, we seek out what Blaise Pascal referred to as divertissements, distractions from the weighty eternal questions, in social media, metaverses, or the ideological smorgasbord of the internet.
But there is a realm that lies beyond these bloodless battles—that of faith. It doesn’t require us to avoid fights over schools, politics, or identity. Rather, acknowledging there is something greater than the turbulence of the present moment equips us to fight better.
This is the idea that inspired our new project, The Tent, an experiment in reintroducing ancient wisdom traditions to a culture addicted to the ephemeral, through explorations of forgiveness, prayer, love, and conflict. And it animated me and my fellow Tent architects during the process of identifying and onboarding faith leaders from various faith traditions whose goal is to help people who participate in The Tent grapple with just what we’re doing here, on earth, in this country, in our community, in our family, in 2022—and why it matters.
We’re seeing an influx of seekers signing up to hear talks from faith leaders on such decidedly uncomfortable topics as fasting, discipline, and martyrdom. Comfort might be … comfortable, but it is not thrilling. What Zelensky has taught us is that we want the excitement that comes from living for something greater than ourselves and our own self-actualization—a life in which we are not cozy and distracted but needed and necessary.