A look at some of the news stories The Policy Circle team is following closely this month.
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The world continues to be inspired by the extraordinary wartime leadership displayed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the heroism and resilience of the Ukrainians.
As attacks widen and intensify, President Putin and Russian state media continue to put forward the narrative that the goal is to protect the people of Donbass and “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine – not to harm civilians, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
To date, representatives of Ukraine and Russia have held at least four rounds of peace talks, but none have resulted in any breakthroughs aside from the establishment of several humanitarian corridors. Meanwhile, Russia’s assault on Ukraine continues to move westward, heightening the possibility that NATO nations, such as Poland, could be drawn into the conflict.
As of March 16, more than 3.1 million Ukrainian refugees have fled their homes to neighboring countries. The United Nations has predicted that the total number of refugees could swell to more than 4 million in what has already become the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Many of those fleeing are unaccompanied children separated from their parents and family members. How the massive influxes will impact the countries welcoming Ukrainian refugees remains to be seen.
One thing is for certain: Russia’s war against Ukraine has unified the West, galvanizing the U.S. and Europe to defend Ukraine’s pursuit of democracy, with even famously neutral countries, like Finland and Switzerland, coming out in support of Ukraine. Still, despite several rounds of economic sanctions and billions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid, questions linger about what more the West can do to combat the crisis and the U.S.’s role in the conflict.
On March 24, President Biden will travel to Brussels to meet with NATO and European leaders to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. March 24th will also mark one month since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
DIG DEEPER: Review The Policy Circle’s Brief on the Ukraine-Russia Crisis and watch our Virtual Policy Briefings featuring foreign policy experts and thought leaders. For daily updates on the war, head to The Institute for The Study of War.
POTENTIAL ENERGY CRISIS
Oil prices were on the rise before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then gasoline prices hit a 14-year high in early March, and now oil prices have suddenly reversed course, with hopes gas prices will soon drop too.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February exacerbated the steady climb in oil prices we’ve seen in recent months. Though oil prices have declined sharply over the past week, they remain more than 40% higher than a year ago. While there are a variety of factors causing the increase in fuel prices, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the most recent surge “a direct result of the invasion of Ukraine.” In fact, retail gas prices have been rising steadily since January 2021, according to data from U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Biden administration initially resisted banning oil imports, but on March 8, Pres. Biden signed an executive order banning Russian oil imports (which accounts for less than 10% of U.S. energy imports) — the same day gas prices hit an all-time high of $4.17 a gallon. That record was quickly slashed in the days that followed though prices have started to steady and even decline amid possible reports of a ceasefire. On March 15, the U.S. benchmark crude oil fell below $97 per barrel, falling more than $33 from its peak a week earlier.
In order to help quell the pain at the pump, the Biden administration is reportedly reaching out to our adversaries in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. The administration’s talks with Venezuela in particular was met with opposition by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said “the Biden administration’s efforts to unify the entire world against a murderous tyrant in Moscow should not be undercut by propping up a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) accused the President of wanting to “replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator” rather than produce more U.S. oil, raising the larger question of whether the Biden administration will change its policies and seek U.S. energy independence.
Of course, it’s not just gasoline, annual inflation reached a new 40-year high in February, with consumer prices up 7.9% from the same time last year. The International Energy Agency stated that higher fuel prices will “increase inflation, reduce household purchasing power and are likely to trigger policy reactions from central banks world-wide—with a strong negative impact on growth.”
HOST A CONVERSATION: Discuss energy policy using The Policy Circle Brief on Energy and the Environment.
The ongoing economic and humanitarian situation has continued to grow more dire as Afghanistan’s economy, once heavily reliant on foreign aid, is now on the brink of collapse, leaving millions of Afghans on the verge of starvation.
Before the takeover, more than 72% of Afghanistan’s 38 million citizens lived below the poverty line. The poverty rate is expected to rise as high as 97% by July 2022, according to the UN Development Program.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of people experiencing acute hunger rose from 14 million in July 2021 to 23 million in March 2022, with 95% of Afghans currently unable to get enough to eat (that number is nearly 100% in female-headed households). UNICEF estimates that 50% of children under five will be acutely malnourished this year due to poor access to food, water, sanitation and hygiene services.
One part of the poverty and starvation crisis is the fact that foreign aid to Afghanistan has halted since the takeover and over $9 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank, or DAB, is now frozen to prevent the Taliban from accessing it — including $7 billion held in the U.S.
In February, the Biden administration announced a major change in policy: the President will seek to move $3.5 billion of Afghanistan’s U.S.-held assets into a trust fund designated for humanitarian aid for the people of Afghanistan. The remaining $3.5 billion could ultimately be transferred to U.S. terrorism victims, including families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, who have legal judgments and lawsuits pending against the Taliban.
On March 7, the UN Human Rights Council issued its first major human rights report since the Taliban takeover in August 2021. According to the report, nearly 400 civilians were killed in attacks in Afghanistan from August 15 – February 15.
U.S. SUPREME COURT NOMINATION
On February 25, President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed, she will be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Judge Jackson has been confirmed by the Senate on a bipartisan basis three times – twice as judge and once to serve on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Judge Jackson currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Previously, she worked as a federal district court judge, a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an attorney in private practice, a federal public defender, and as a law clerk at all three levels of the federal Judiciary, including for Justice Stephen Breyer (the Justice she’s been nominated to replace).
Like other members of the federal judicial branch, Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Here is the process:
- The President selects a nominee and refers the nomination to the Senate.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings, scheduled to begin on March 21, where the nominee provides testimony and answers questions.
- The Committee votes on whether to recommend confirmation to the full Senate.
- The full Senate votes to confirm the nominee, which requires a simple majority (51 votes).
The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris (who also serves as the president of the Senate) is able to cast a tie-breaking vote. This means that without any Republican votes in favor of the nominee, all 50 Democrat senators and Vice President Harris would need to vote in person to back the nomination. A 50-50 Senate has never confirmed a Supreme Court nominee.
If confirmed to the Court, Judge Jackson will not change the Supreme Court’s existing balance. There are currently six justices appointed by Republican presidents and three justices appointed by Democrat presidents.
BE PREPARED: Check out The Policy Circle NEW Policy Brief on the Judicial Branch.