• Matthew Inui

Weekly News Blast Sept. 11-18

A summary of notable events from the previous week.


1. Ukraine Reclaims Kharkiv Region From Russian Control


On September 11, Russia formally acknowledged that they had lost nearly all of the Kharkiv region in northern Ukraine. In a fierce counteroffensive last week, Ukraine liberated more than 20 settlements (1,000 square miles) in just 24 hours, forcing Russian forces to retreat to the border. According to the British defense ministry, the Kharkiv region contained one of the few resupply routes Russia still controlled from the Belgorod region of West Russia. Its loss could be devastating for Russian supply lines and a possible turning point in the conflict.


A map of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine (TUBS/Wikimedia Commons).


While Ukrainian advancement has almost slowed to a halt and Russia still controls much of southeastern Ukraine, the recent counteroffensive did cause widespread unrest within Russia. For example, Chechnya leader and staunch Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov criticized Russian leadership over its many “mistakes” in northeastern Ukraine. Igor Strelkov, a former Russian officer who led forces against Ukrainian separatists in 2014, called Russian military officials “morons” for underestimating Ukraine. Even the state-controlled Russian TV, which has largely avoided coverage of the Ukraine counteroffensive, featured former parliament member Boris Nadezhdin saying “people who convinced President Putin that the operation will be fast and effective… really set up all of us.”


The striking Ukrainian success also opened the door for more Western assistance in the future, undermining arguments in places like Germany that providing more resources to Ukraine would only lead to a longer, bloodier stalemate against a Russia destined to win. “Let me be frank,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, foreign minister of Lithuania and one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, “Ukraine could have thrown Russia out months ago if they had been provided with the necessary equipment from Day 1.” While a Ukrainian victory is far from certain, the recent counteroffensive has shown that Ukraine is far from giving up.


2. Dr. Renee Wegrzyn Named Head of New Medical Research Agency


On September 12, President Biden announced that he had selected Dr. Renee Wegrzyn to head the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a newly created medical research agency. The current Vice President for Business Development at Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company specializing in genetic engineering, and a former worker for the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, one of the agencies inspiring the creation of the ARPA-H, Dr. Wegrzyn is widely considered to be a qualified candidate to lead this new agency.


Created in February, the ARPA-H is based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Like DARPA, the ARPA-H will focus on high-risk, high-reward research rather than the safer but slower investments of conventional funding approaches. The hope is that, by experimenting with novel technologies, the agency could push the boundaries of medicine and discover treatments for things like cancer. “ARPA-H will create the transformative and collaborative space that is required to support the next generation of moonshots for health,” Dr. Wegrzyn said in a statement. However, ARPA-H will not only focus on emerging technological advancements. According to Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, the agency could also fund projects addressing social determinants of health such as access to health care, affordable medicine, and education.


Still, Wegrzyn has a long road ahead of her as she fleshes out the structure of the agency and its priorities. Already, Wegrzyn faces several roadblocks. For example, US health secretary Xavier Becerra decided that ARPA-H would be part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would theoretically give ARPA-H access to the NIH’s vast scientific and administrative expertise. However, many fear that ARPA-H will become overly influenced by the NIH’s traditional funding culture. Congress has also only allocated the agency $1 billion for 2022, as opposed to the $6.5 billion Biden requested last year. “What she needs to do is get a win on the board right away,” said Steve Brozak, an investment banker at the biotechnology investment firm WBB Securities. Still, the ARPA-H is a promising step forward for biomedical research. As Ellen Sigal, chair of Friends of Cancer Research, said, “this is an exciting step for this new agency that has great potential to change the lives of patients for the better.”


3. Special Master Appointed in Investigation into Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Documents


On September 15, US District Judge Aileen Cannon named semi-retired judge Raymond J. Dearie as special master in the ongoing investigation into the thousands of documents seized from former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence. Judge Dearie will be responsible for sorting through the more than 11,000 documents seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to find any that might be protected by executive or attorney-client privilege.


The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked Judge Cannon on Thursday to stay the portion of her ruling that blocked it from investigating the 100 documents marked as classified, but she refused. Even though she asked Judge Dearie to prioritize those classified documents and set a deadline of November 30, the DOJ called her concessions “insufficient.” They then appealed Judge Cannon’s decision, asking a higher court to let the FBI regain access to the 100 classified documents. In their filing, the DOJ wrote, “although the government believes the district court fundamentally erred in appointing a special master and granting injunctive relief, the government seeks to stay only the portions of the order causing the most serious and immediate harm to the government and the public,” a move they called “modest but critically important.”


How this ruling will affect the investigation is yet to be seen. It will most certainly delay the investigation, but the outcome may not change. David Weinstein, a former Justice Department prosecutor, said, “while it is a setback for the government, it is also not a devastating loss for them.” It also seems that Dearie will be an impartial special master. Several colleagues have already vouched for his impartiality. He “doesn’t tolerate nonsense,” said New York civil lawyer Richard Garbarini, “he will not allow parties, or attorneys, to play games, or play fast-and-loose with the rules.” “He’s someone who actually listens to the lawyers and considers what they have to say before he makes a decision,” added Lindsay Gerdes, a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor. Ultimately, the DOJ is determined to complete its investigation. But for now, all it can do is wait for the appeals court to hand down its decision and for the special master to finish his review.


 

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