Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg on the campaign trail likes to talk about his early support for same-sex marriage and push for New York State to legalize gay nuptials in 2011, but one aspect of his record he doesn’t mention is his veto in the years before that time of domestic partner benefits for LGBTQ workers.
In 2004, Bloomberg as former New York City mayor, vetoed a measure approved by the New York City Council known as the Equal Benefits Law, which would have required businesses receiving $100,000 in annual city contracts to provide partner benefits, including health and pension benefits, to its LGBTQ employees.
Although the council voted to override his veto, Bloomberg sued to block the measure in court, citing interference with his authority as mayor, state law for municipalities and federal law for worker benefits. A judge refused to grant Bloomberg a temporary restraining order, but he nonetheless refused to enforce it. In 2006, when the case against the measure made its way to the New York State Court of Appeals, Bloomberg won.
At a time when same-sex couples are free to marry nationwide thanks to the 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, the idea of domestic partner benefits may seem quaint and insufficient, especially when they’d only be required for businesses doing $100,000 a year in contracts from New York City. But in 2004, when Massachusetts was the only state in the union to allow same-sex marriage and public sentiment was largely against gay nuptials, partner benefits were seen as a modest, but achievable, way to afford protections to LGBTQ families.
Carmen Vasquez, a now retired LGBTQ activist who at the time was deputy director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, told the Washington Blade Wednesday that Bloomberg’s veto of domestic partnership was “just dumb on his part.”
“It reflected poorly on his capacity to understand what the LGBT community was about,” Vasquez added.
Vasquez said Bloomberg overall was a “mixed bag,” citing positive moves of gun control, environment and the arts, but also “blind spots” on race, such as the “stop and frisk” policy for which Bloomberg has apologized since announcing his run for president.
Bloomberg’s veto of domestic partner benefits, Vasquez said, was “a big blow to the LGBT community” and spurred the decision to move forward with a larger statewide effort to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, which happened in 2011.
For context in 2004, the public perception on domestic partners was far more favorable than the idea of same-sex marriage. At least one other candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination had acted in support of them many years before that time. In 1992, Joseph Biden as U.S. senator voted against an amendment to appropriations legislation that would have overturned domestic partnerships in D.C.
Bloomberg is facing renewed scrutiny on his LGBTQ record in the aftermath of a two recently unearthed in which he made derisive comments about transgender people. In a 2016 video, Bloomberg referred to a trans woman as a “man in a dress,” and, as first reported by Buzzfeed News, Bloomberg in a 2019 video referred to a trans person as “it” and blamed transgender people for Democratic losses in 2016.
A Bloomberg campaign spokesperson responded to the 2004 veto of domestic partner benefits by saying the mayor had concerns the measure conflicted with state and local laws.
“Mike has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ equality throughout his public life,” the spokesperson said. “While Mike has been consistent in his belief that same-sex partners should have equal rights, in this case, he did not think the policy would advance this goal, because it would conflict with federal and state laws.”
Bloomberg had subsequently worked to expand benefits for LGBTQ workers, including partner benefits through a 2005 executive order, the campaign spokesperson said.
“As mayor, Mike worked to expand benefits and health care equality for domestic partners,” the spokesperson said. “In 2005, he secured health care benefits for domestic partners through executive order. He supported marriage equality in 2005 long before many elected officials in either party. As president Mike will pass the Equality Act and will take executive action to ensure equal benefits and protections for LGBTQ+ federal government employees, as well as employees of firms that do business with the federal government.”
Executive Order 72, which Bloomberg signed in 2005, required city vendors to report whether they offered health care coverage on an equal basis to the spouses and domestic partners of those employees, but made no requirement they did so as the city council ordinance did.
At the time of the veto, Matt Foreman, then-executive director of what is now the National LGBTQ Task Force, was so indignant over Bloomberg’s veto he resigned his post on New York City’s Commission of Human Rights — a role to which Bloomberg appointed him.
In a report from Gay City News in 2004, Foreman was quoted as lambasting Bloomberg, going so far as to say the former mayor may not have not ever seen a business contract with New York City.
“The City of New York has used its procurement power for decades to support social equality,” Foreman was quoted as saying. “I’m not sure the mayor has ever read a standard city contract. They contain pages of provisions requiring vendors to comply with the Human Rights Law, advance minorities and women and create a safe working environment.”
In his resignation letter to Bloomberg and Commission Chair Patricia Gatling, Foreman wrote, as reported by Gay City News, “Through its lawsuit, the administration is saying loudly and inexplicably that gay and lesbian families do no merit being part of this tradition [of promoting equity goals through contracting].” Foreman added “principle requires that I resign.”
Foreman, who’s now senior program director for gay and lesbian programs at the San Francisco-based Haas Jr. Foundation, didn’t dispute the 2004 quote in Gay City News when speaking with the Blade and acknowledged he resigned his position on the Human Rights Commission, but said there’s more to the story.
In the fall of 2005, Foreman said he received a phone call from Bloomberg, who explained his position against the council’s measure and urged him to rejoin the commission.
“He went over his objections to the ordinance (which were that it gave an unfair advantage to companies outside the city) and the steps he had taken to get more companies doing business with the city to offer domestic partner benefits,” Foreman told the Blade. “That included requiring all companies to publicly disclose whether they provided DP benefits to their employees and persuading some of the city’s largest health care insurance companies to start offering benefits at affordable rates. He was emphatic with me that he wanted gay couples to get equal benefits and thought the then-current situation was very unjust.”
Foreman told the Blade after listening to Bloomberg, he agreed to be reappointed to the commission and served until April 2008, when he left the Task Force to move to California.
“I don’t think the 2004 veto says anything about Mr. Bloomberg’s views on LGBT equality,” added Foreman, who said he hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the primary. “His actions since then confirm he’s a solid ally.”
At the end of the day, the New York State Court of Appeals — the highest state court in New York State — determined in 2006 Bloomberg was correct in refusing to enforce the measure, despite being unsuccessful in obtaining a restraining order, because the ordinance was “preempted by state and federal statutes.”
Writing the majority opinion in the decision in the case of Council of the City of New York v. Bloomberg was New York State Court of Appeals Associate Judge Robert Smith, who determined the measure conflicted with Bloomberg’s authority as mayor under the city charter, state municipal law for contracting rules and the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which sets rules for health and retirement plans in the private industry.
“We have no doubt that the Equal Benefits Law is a good faith effort to make contractors treat the domestic partners of employees in a way that the Council considers fair,” Smith wrote. “But the competitive bidding statute reflects a judgment by the State Legislature that, to avoid among other things the risk of favoritism, municipalities must give business to the lowest responsible bidder, whether the bidder’s benefit plans meet the municipality’s idea of fairness or not.”
With regard to ERISA, the council had argued the benefits measure didn’t require certain business provide certain benefits, which would have been prohibited under federal law. That didn’t fly with Smith, who said the argument is “inconsistent with United States Court precedent” in the case of Boston Harbor v. Gould, which addressed unfair labor practices.
“The Equal Benefits Law, as its name implies, is designed to induce contractors to treat domestic partners and spouses equally, just as the Wisconsin statute in Gould was designed to induce contractors to avoid unfair labor practices,” Smith wrote. “Thus the market participant exception does not apply here, and the Equal Benefits Law, except to the extent that the benefits it governs are not provided through ERISA plans, is preempted by ERISA.”
The Court of Appeals ruling affirmed the appellate division’s dismissal of proceeding brought by the New York City Council to compel enforcement of the law.
Dissenting from the majority was then-Court of Appeals Associate Judge Albert Rosenblatt, who determined as a matter of separation of powers Bloomberg should have enforced the law after failing to obtain a restraining order because “it is the job of the legislative branch to enact laws and the executive to carry them out.”
Rosenblatt, however, declined to make a conclusion was unlawful or not under the constraints of federal and state law. Although the council maintained the measure would work because it was at minimal cost to contractors, additional evidence was needed.
“Expert testimony would be sought, hearings transcripts would be studied, credibility judgments would be made,” Rosenblatt wrote. “Supreme Court would be able to consider the extent to which factual matters were rationally controverted in reaching a conclusion about whether summary judgment was warranted. It would do so with all facts viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving City Council.”
Art Leonard, a professor of labor and employment law at New York Law School and editor of LGBT Law Notes,” said despite the court’s conclusion “issues of ERISA preemption and state preemption of a city ordinance are complicated, and debatable,” adding Bloomberg had more options.
“I think had Bloomberg enforced the law, he would have been sued by potential city contractors and the case would probably have ended up the same as it did, but in the meantime perhaps some employees of contractors would have enjoyed the benefits for their partners and children,” Leonard said. “I don’t know what was in Bloomberg’s heart — whether the legal argument was a pretext to deny benefits — but I would have said that in light of the difficulties of predicting how a court would resolve the preemption question, it would have been more politic for him to enforce the ordinance and have the city defend it in court if a contractor sued.”
Leonard compared Bloomberg’s veto of the domestic partnership measure to his appeal of a trial judge decision in Manhattan ruling in favor of marriage equality, which he said “inspired considerable ire.” The ruling was later overturned by the New York Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals.
“When he decided he was right about an issue, my recollection is that he was pretty much impervious to contrary argument,” Leonard concluded. “In that sense, of course, he bears a haunting resemblance to Trump along authoritarian lines.”
Christine Quinn, who as a former member of the city council, was chief sponsor of the measure, recalls in her 2013 book, “With Patience & Fortitude,” trying to model the New York City ordinance on a San Francisco measure and her disappointment when the New York Court of Appeals ruled against it.
“The point of that bill — for which I was the lead sponsor — was to get benefits for domestic partners; but even more important, it would demonstrate that we in city government had pushed the envelope as far as we could in recognizing gay families,” Quinn wrote. “We did everything to support the bill, from lobbying members of the City Council and community organizing to organizing businesses.”
Although Quinn conceded Bloomberg was justified in his reasoning, she concludes the court ruling against the measure was a “big defeat.” (The Blade reached out to Quinn for this article, but she declined to comment.)
“The mayor’s office brought a lawsuit claiming that passage of the bill was a violation of the City Council’s powers, because we don’t have power over contracts, which is actually true,” Quinn wrote. “Mayor Bloomberg didn’t disagree with the content of the bill, but he thought the City Council had overstepped its legislative authority. We had tried to be creative about how we wrote the legislation, doing it in a way that threaded the needle, but the court didn’t agree, and we lost. It was a big defeat.”
In subsequent years, Bloomberg as mayor of New York City would become a prominent voice in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, advocating for it at the time of a failed vote on the Senate floor in 2009 and ultimately success in 2011. In subsequent years, Bloomberg would sign friend-of-the court briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and rule in favor same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
At a Washington news conference last month announcing D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s endorsement of his candidacy, Bloomberg said he had an “impeccable” record on LGBTQ rights and told the Blade his early support for same-sex marriage makes him stand from other competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Well just to address that one community, my recollection is…I went and got the Republican Senate of the State of New York as well as the Democratic House to pass a law permitting gay marriage in New York long before anybody else that I know who’s running for office ever even thought about it or certainly said anything about it,” Bloomberg said.
Foreman, speaking with the Blade, said Bloomberg’s later support for marriage equality is a perfect example of allowing public figures the opportunity to evolve on their views on LGBTQ rights.
“I’m starting my 41st year of essentially full-time work in the LGBT movement, 30 of them paid (yes, I’m unbelievably fortunate),” Foreman said. “What I’ve learned is that no elected official is perfect on our issues, that forward movement should be welcomed, and what counts most is actually getting things done for our people. Therefore, it would have been hypocritical and unproductive for me to have been locked in place when Mayor Bloomberg was doing the right things then. I’ve seen no evidence of backsliding since, just the opposite.”
New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences
Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings
The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.
In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.
Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.
“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”
The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.
And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.
Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”
“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”
One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.
As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.
Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.
Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.
“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”
Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”
Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.
One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.
“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”
Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.
With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.
Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.
“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign
Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.
Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.
“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”
The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.
“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”
The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.
Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis
Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move
Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.
Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.
Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.
The full interview follows:
Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?
Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.
Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?
Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.
I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.
The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.
I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.
Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?
Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.
The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.
Blade: What will that look like?
Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.
Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?
Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.
We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.
That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help
Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?
Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …
They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.
But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.
Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”
Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.
I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.
Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?
Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.
Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?
Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.
I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.
Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?
Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.
Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?
Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.
Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?
Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.
Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.
Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.
I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.
Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?
Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.
Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —
Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.
And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.
That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.
So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.
Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.
There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?
Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?
Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.
A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.
Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.
Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.
Blade: That’s pretty succinct.
Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.
Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?
Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.
Blade: Wow, okay.
Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.
Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?
Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.
I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.
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