Congressional leaders stripped a measure from this year’s defense policy bill that would have expanded compensation for victims of U.S. nuclear testing, drawing condemnation from lawmakers who had spearheaded the initiative and bitter disappointment from activists who hoped the blockbuster film “Oppenheimer” would bolster support for their efforts.
“This is a grave injustice,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who led the charge in favor of the expansion, said Thursday. “This bill turns its back on the people of the United States in defense of the lobbyists and the suits and the corporate entities who are going to get paid.”
The initiative had passed as an amendment to the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, earning bipartisan support in a 61-37 vote. The measure would have significantly expanded the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which gave financial relief to some uranium miners and victims living downwind of the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. carried out most of its nuclear experiments.
The original law is set to expire in May of next year, a deadline that will end benefits for those who have been receiving compensation. Activists hope that, in the short term, lawmakers will find a way to push that deadline back in order to keep the program alive.
“Downwinders” have long reported unusually high rates of cancer and other radiation-related diseases. One activist who spoke with RS earlier this year said 21 members of her family had gotten cancer, and seven had died from it. The explosions disproportionately impacted poor Latino communities and Native American Pueblos, leaving many victims trapped under a mountain of medical debt.
The amendment would have expanded RECA to include downwinders in New Mexico, where the first nuclear test took place, as well as a wider swathe of uranium miners and people living in Missouri who were exposed to waste from the Manhattan Project. The expansion would have also covered people in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Guam.
In a statement to RS, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) blamed the decision to kill RECA expansion on Republican House leaders, who quietly oppose the measure due to its projected cost of nearly $15 billion per year — a sharp increase from the $2.3 billion that RECA has paid out to date.
“Downwinders and uranium workers suffer from debilitating and deadly diseases related to building and testing nuclear bombs,” Leger Fernandez argued. “Our bipartisan coalition will not give up — we will fight to pass RECA and secure justice for our beloved New Mexico communities who unknowingly sacrificed so much for our nation’s security.”
Activists note that the cost of RECA expansion, while large on its face, pales in comparison to the broader military budget, which the 2024 NDAA sets at roughly $874 billion. More than $30 billion of that budget came from programs that the Biden administration had not requested, and backers of the initiative suggested specific offsets for the increased cost, according to Hawley.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget argued in October that “any increase in expense should be fully paid for with higher revenue, lower spending, or some combination.”
“If lawmakers are committed to expanding benefits for deserving individuals, they should be equally committed to paying for those expansions,” the group said in a blog post.
So far, Hawley is the only lawmaker who has said he will vote against the NDAA in protest of the “backroom deal” to remove RECA expansion. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), who blames his father’s death on radiation exposure from work at Los Alamos, recently tweeted that “[a]ll options are on the table” for getting the initiative signed into law.
RS reported in July that the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium had attempted to contact “Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan and ask him to include a message about the downwinders in his film, but activists were unable to secure a meeting. Despite the rejection, supporters of RECA expansion hoped that the movie would create an opportunity for a public discussion of the impacts of nuclear testing.
Hawley’s amendment passed in late July, roughly a week after the film’s release. Activists stepped up their advocacy efforts in September and sent a group of advocates from throughout the west and Missouri to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.
The decision to strip the bill from the NDAA was both surprising and “shockingly immoral,” argued Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in an interview with RS.
“There have been so many people that I've spoken to in the last 24 hours that were so emotional, so heartbroken because they had such high hopes for this Congress,” Cordova said.
As Cordova mentioned, many of those who would receive compensation from RECA live in Republican states and House districts. “When the Republicans in the House refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for this, they're voting against their constituents,” she argued.
“I wouldn't be allowed to recklessly harm other people and walk away from responsibility for that,” she continued. “It's like driving drunk and plowing into a van full of people and injuring them, and then telling the court that I simply don't have the resources to take care of the mess I've made.”
Cordova said that, in the near term, activists will need time to process their disappointment after having come so close to success. But she and her allies are prepared to keep fighting until RECA expansion is finally passed.
“We all need time to dust ourselves off,” she said. “But we will come back. We have developed a very broad coalition of people from all across this country from one coast to the other, and we will come back stronger than we were before.”
Sen. Lujan, who has introduced RECA-related legislation every year since 2008, said Thursday that he will continue pushing for expansion despite the setback. “I am not giving up on justice for New Mexicans and all those deeply impacted by radiation exposure and nuclear testing,” he said in a statement. “Over the course of this process, our support has only grown and the fight doesn’t end here.”
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.