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Sensemaker: Bravest man alive

Monday 18 January 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Pentagon said it was screening National Guard troops responsible for security at Wednesday’s presidential inauguration to make sure they were not a threat. 
  • Twelve gold miners trapped underground after an explosion in eastern China sent a note to the surface asking for painkillers and other medicines.
  • Yulia Putintseva, the Kazakh women’s tennis number two, posted a video of her playing a 28-shot rally against an upturned mattress in her hotel room in Melbourne, where she and 71 others are in hard quarantine for two weeks before the Australian Open.

Bravest man alive

Alexei Navalny kissed his wife. She stroked his face – a moment of remarkable tenderness considering the masked police looking on – and then they led him away. The immediate detention of Russia’s de facto opposition leader on his return to Russia yesterday, five months after being poisoned in Siberia, was unsurprising but still a brazen international provocation. At least it didn’t go unnoticed:

  • Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s incoming US national security advisor, said the arrest was “not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard”. We’ve not heard anything so direct or prompt or accurate about Russia from the White House in the past four years. 
  • The EU piled in behind a demand from Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, for Navalny’s immediate release. He called the arrest “utterly incomprehensible”. It isn’t. Navalny’s anti-corruption campaigning has won him a wide following, and his poisoning nearly made him a martyr. But at least Europe has responded more briskly to this outrage than to last year’s mass arrests of protesters in neighbouring Belarus.
  • Despite Moscow’s first serious snowstorm this year, a big crowd gathered at Vnukovo Airport to welcome Navalny home – so big that his flight was redirected to Sheremetyevo for “technical reasons”.

Looking back: let’s not forget that Putin has always managed to surprise even his most worldly critics with the severity of his punishment for those who challenge him. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who got ten years in jail, was one of the lucky ones. Navalny has been arrested many times before and usually released quickly, but the novichok nerve agent administered to his underpants, apparently by FSB agents, was undoubtedly meant to kill him.

Looking forward: Putin seems to have run out of patience with the man he calls “our famous blogger”. The Kremlin’s next formal vote of confidence comes in parliamentary elections in September, when its tame United Russia party will be required to win two thirds of the Duma’s seats even though it has the support of less than one third of Russian voters. Navalny could be detained at least until the elections, or worse.

Unless, unless sustained and unanimous western advocacy on his behalf makes Putin think twice. It hasn’t been tried for a while, and it just might make a difference.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

China by numbers
According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, its economy grew by 2.3 per cent last year. According to the IMF, it will grow by 7.9 per cent in 2021. Considering Covid, and a Challenger Deep-style slump in output last March (when annualised GDP growth fell by 12 percentage points to minus 6.8 per cent), both numbers are remarkable. Last year’s 2.3 per cent growth was China’s lowest since Deng Xiaoping started to open its economy to the West 40 years ago. But it was still proof of the brute resilience of surveillance capitalism under Xi. No big western economy shut down Covid as effectively as China did last year, and no big western economy avoided recession.

New things technology, science, engineering

Virgin Orbit
“Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.” That was Virgin Orbit’s comms team moments after a space rocket resembling a large missile reached low earth orbit yesterday after being launched from the belly of a jumbo jet at 35,000 feet. The plane took off from California for a launch over the Pacific that delivered ten small satellites to orbit and confirmed that air launches offer an alternative to old-fashioned blast-offs. Note: “confirmed”, not “proved”. The concept is almost as old as space travel and is already in use by Virgin Galactic, which hopes to use it for tourists rather than satellites. But it’s good to see people persisting with a launch method that makes any airport in the world a potential spaceport, and saves rocket-loads of fuel every time.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

More trees than we thought
Staying with satellites, they’ve found a vital use in counting trees. We knew this in principle from a controversial tree count two years ago which put the global total at around three trillion, or seven times more than previously thought. But now researchers at the University of Illinois, using satellite imagery and a supercomputer called Blue Waters, have counted 1.8 billion trees in an area of Africa twice the size of France where most maps show little tree cover or none at all. The area in question is in the southern Sahara and the slightly less arid Sahel. The research doesn’t reveal a new swath of territory ripe for forestation, but it does show that high-resolution pictures and AI can keep track of trees and the amount of carbon they store much better than the guesstimates we used to rely on.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Keystone to be axed
Sources say Joe Biden plans to rescind permission for construction of the cross-country Keystone XL oil pipeline by executive order as one of his first acts in office. The pipeline was opposed by Obama, approved by Trump, blocked by a series of court rulings over the past four years and now looks set to become an irritant in otherwise cordial relations between Canada and the incoming Biden team. Keystone XL was planned to carry huge quantities of thick oil dug from tar sands in Alberta to the Texan gulf coast, for refining and export. Over more than a decade it has become a red line for environmentalists and a must-have for fossil fuel diehards and Alberta politicians. It already exists all the way to the US-Canadian border, but there it looks likely to stop – for now. If Biden makes good on his pledge to reinvent the entire North American energy system, this could be it for Keystone.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Wine’s house arrest
Bobi Wine claimed victory after last week’s Ugandan election, but then so did his opponent, Yoweri Museveni. With all the advantages of incumbency and an obedient military, Museveni now has Wine under de facto house arrest in Kampala. “We can’t even get groceries delivered,” Wine told the Sunday Times (£). “They are trying to starve us out.” The official tally gave Museveni 58 per cent of the vote to Wine’s 34, but the challenger, whose day job as a musician made him a star before he ran for office, has urged his followers to reject the result and fight on. He says his supporters are being rounded up by police and evidence of a rigged vote is being destroyed under cover of an internet blackout. For his part, Museveni claims the election was the most “cheating-free” since independence. There were no international observers, but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t. 

The week ahead

18/1 – vaccine roll-out begins for over-70s and clinical vulnerable; mandatory Covid-19 testing begins for international arrivals into England; opposition day debate in parliament on Universal Credit; Manchester Arena hearings resume; Cervical Cancer Prevention Week begins, 19/1 – High Court hearing for ongoing legal action brought by Duchess of Sussex against the Mail on Sunday; Sony and Warner Music CEOs appear before select committee session on music streaming; COP 26 president Alok Sharma outlines UK net zero plans, 20/1 – European Court of Justice issues judgement on Somali challenging revocation of his refugee status in UK; WHSmith releases Christmas trading statement, 21/1 – ONS publishes quarterly estimate of government debt and deficit; shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds to set out Labour Party’s economic recovery plan at LSE event, 22/1 – British Gas workers strike over redundancy proposals; UK retail figures for December

18/1 – Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, expected to address parliament over ongoing political crisis, 19/1 – Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe meets to discuss poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, 20/1 – Joe Biden takes office as US president; impeachment trial for Donald Trump begins in US Senate; World Economic Forum releases annual Global Risk Report, 21/1 – European leaders hold videoconference on vaccination strategy, 22/1 – motion responses due in advance of trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, 23/1 – Arizona Republican Party meets to vote on resolution to censure Cindy McCain, widower of John McCain, 24/1 – NFL playoffs take place; Portugal holds presidential election

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Xavier Greenwood

Photographs Getty Images