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Top Story:  “Who was Putin’s nuke move really for?”

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Accessed on 28 March 2023, 0228 UTC.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Cameron Hood, Newsletter EditorCameron Hood
Newsletter Editor
Welcome to Grid Today, bringing you context and clarity on the most important stories of the day. In today’s edition, we’re taking a look at Putin, nukes and how they connect to China, renewable energy outpacing coal, and an expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina.
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Was Putin’s nuke move really a message for China?

As famed whistleblower and anti-nuclear activist Daniel Ellsberg recently put it, even if a nuclear weapon hasn’t actually been detonated in the war in Ukraine, they have been used: “They’re being used as threats, just as a bank robber uses a gun, even if he doesn’t pull the trigger.”

The threat has loomed over this conflict since the very beginning, when Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened any outside countries that might interfere with Russian designs on Ukraine with “such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” Putin, his top officials and the Russian state media’s propagandists have repeated those threats many times, but they’ve started to seem a bit less credible as the level of Western military support has increased, blowing through Putin’s supposed red lines without any nuclear retaliation. And in recent months, the Kremlin has seemed to be dialing back its nuclear rhetoric.

Until this past week that is.

On Saturday, Putin announced plans to station Russian nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. Most nuclear analysts are skeptical that facilities in Belarus will actually be ready to host these nukes by July, as Putin vowed, but it’s still a sign of a return to nuclear brinkmanship from the Kremlin. That approach was only underlined on Monday when Nikolai Patrushev, a close Putin ally and secretary of his security council, warned in a newspaper interview that Russia “has modern unique weapons capable of destroying any adversary, including the United States, in the event of a threat to its existence.”

The ostensible reason for Putin’s Belarus move was Britain’s recent decision to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium. But this latest round of nuclear saber-rattling was met mainly with shrugs in both London and Washington. But is it possible the message Putin was sending was intended less for his adversaries to the West and more of his allies to the East?

While Chinese leader Xi Jinping has generally refrained from criticizing Russia’s conduct of the war and supported Putin’s argument that NATO provoked the conflict, the one exception has been nuclear weapons. The closest that Xi has come to criticizing Russia since the war began was his statement last November calling on the international community to “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons.”

Just last week, when Xi met with Putin in Moscow, the joint communiqué put out by the two leaders specifically included language stating that “all nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad and withdraw nuclear weapons deployed abroad.” In other words, by placing Russian nukes in Belarus, Putin is violating a commitment he made to his most important ally just a week earlier. Instead, as he has so many times in the past, Putin gave himself permission by accusing the West of hypocrisy, saying that by placing nukes on the territory of its allies, Russia is simply doing what the U.S. has been “doing for decades.”

While the Putin-Xi summit was a political win for the Kremlin in purely political terms, especially coming shortly after the Russian president’s indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, it also came with few specific deliverables. Xi did not sign off, as Putin was clearly hoping he would, on a proposed pipeline project to reroute Russia’s gas exports from Europe to Asia. And despite warnings from the U.S. intelligence services that China is considering providing arms and ammunition to Russia—a move that would be a genuine game-changer in what’s become a grinding war of attrition—there were no announcements on direct military support.

Writing on Substack, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul posited a theory that the Russian’s deliberately flouted the commitments they made to Xi: “Maybe Putin was so disappointed with the lack of gifts that Xi brought to Moscow…that he wanted to get back at Xi with the only power card he holds in his hand: nuclear weapons.”

The Chinese foreign ministry’s response to the move was fairly ambiguous, with spokesperson Mao Ning referring to an agreement made by nuclear weapons states last year affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

We’ll see in the coming weeks, particularly if and when Ukraine’s armed forces launch a long-anticipated counteroffensive, whether Putin will return to the full-on nuclear saber-rattling that characterized his rhetoric in the early months of the war. For now, this talk doesn’t seem to raise as much alarm as it used to in Western capitals. But as the war continues, particularly if Russia appears to be losing badly, Ukraine’s allies may have to make some tough decisions about how much they think Putin really means it.

— Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating and China Reporter Lili Pike


Renewable energy laps coal for the first time

New data from the Energy Information Administration show that electricity generation from renewable energy sources surpassed the electricity the country generated from coal in 2022, for the very first time.

That jump came before the passage last fall of the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains a host of clean energy incentives. Many observers have welcomed what could be a new era of American efforts to reduce emissions and combat climate change. As the new data shows, that effort is not starting from scratch.

In 2021, coal accounted for 23 percent of U.S. electricity. Last year, that dropped to 20 percent, thanks in part to a number of power plant retirements. Meanwhile, the combined total for solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydropower jumped up from 19 to 21 percent, hammering another symbolic nail into coal power’s eventual coffin.

💡 A mixed bag? The jump in renewable power is thanks to the combination of solar and wind, which together rose from 12 percent to 14 percent of all electricity generation. The bad news here is that far and away the country’s largest source of electricity remains natural gas — the fossil fuel generated 39 percent of U.S. power in 2022, and that also represented a rise from the 37 percent in 2021. In other words, while coal’s long-running demise continues apace, it is not simply being replaced with clean power sources.

🚀 Clean energy rocket ship: That said, the welcome news about increasing renewables penetration comes as implementation of the IRA gets underway. Though plenty of challenges remain, there are indications that the flip from fossil fuels to clean energy could really start to take off.

A recent analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the combination of the IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 could help the total “clean electricity shares” jump from 41 percent (including nuclear power’s contribution along with renewables) all the way to between 71 and 90 percent by the end of this decade. If that comes to pass, we’ll celebrate clean energy passing natural gas in the hierarchy in a few years as well.

— Climate Reporter Dave Levitan

North Carolina expands Medicaid after 10-year wait

North Carolina became the 40th state to expand Medicaid eligibility yesterday – more than a decade after the Affordable Care Act gave states the power to do so.

The bipartisan move, which saw Democratic Gov. Roy Moore sign a bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, is the latest signal that GOP opposition to Obamacare isn’t as strong as it used to be. That’s in part because expanding Medicaid can help bolster struggling rural hospitals.

☑️ The political context: For more than a decade, Republicans in state legislatures across the country have opposed expanding Medicaid, arguing it would cost too much, especially if the Affordable Care Act got repealed by congress. But it’s clear now that Obamacare is here to stay, and GOP-controlled states have slowly been relenting. Since 2017, voters secured Medicaid expansion in seven red states, most recently in South Dakota.

🏥 What it means for North Carolina: State lawmakers in North Carolina tied the new bill to passage of the budget this fall. Assuming that happens, roughly 600,000 residents making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line – about $41,000 for a family of four – will be covered by the expansion. The expansion also comes with a $1.8 billion “signing bonus” from the federal government (part of the American Rescue Plan), along with several billion more for healthcare. The infusion of cash will help ailing rural hospitals in the state still reeling from the pandemic. Only 10 states, mostly in the South, have yet to expand Medicaid. As pandemic-era provisions that eased access to Medicaid end, pressure may mount to expand the program in these states too.

— Public Health Reporter Jon Lambert


61% rise in youth gun deaths and injuries since 2016

Six people, including three children, were killed on Monday at Covenant School in Nashville by a 28-year-old former student.

Just three months into 2023, 59 children under the age of 11 have been killed and another 131 have been injured by gun violence, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. The nonprofit defines gun violence as including mass shootings as well as  accidental shootings, murders, armed robberies and familicide.

The number of youth killed or injured by gun violence has been increasing over the last few years. In 2022, about 6,000 children and teens were killed or injured by guns. That’s an increase of nearly 8 percent from 2021 — and 61 percent from 2016.

— Data Visualizations Editor Anna Deen

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