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Sensemaker: Tension in Ukraine

Wednesday 14 April 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Iran said it will increase the purity of its uranium, bringing it closer to the level needed to make a nuclear bomb, after an Israeli attack on its main nuclear plant.
  • The unemployment rate for Black people in the UK aged between 16 and 24 increased to 35 per cent during the pandemic compared with 13 per cent for young white people.
  • Egypt seized the container ship that blocked the Suez Canal as it negotiated damages with the ship’s Japanese owner.

Tension in Ukraine

Seven years after Russia annexed Crimea, Russian forces are assembling on the border with Ukraine once again. Ukraine says that Russia has increased troop numbers by 14,000. There are now 40,000 soldiers stationed on Ukraine’s eastern border, close to Russian separatist areas in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The same number of troops is deployed in Crimea, up from 32,000 earlier in the year. This is the biggest escalation since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 – and the Ukrainians are worried. 

Russia’s arsenal certainly looks threatening. They’ve sent tanks and ballistic missiles to the border and beefed up their Black Sea fleet with gunboats and landing craft. Russia says there’s no plan to attack Ukraine but Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, did warn that Russia would “come to the defence” of Russian citizens in Ukraine if hostilities broke out.

To justify the troop movements, Russia is claiming there’s been aggression from Ukraine – but in reality this looks like pure intimidation from Moscow. So what’s Putin trying to do? There are a few theories:

  • This might be a patriotic diversion ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections in  September. Economic pain and the pandemic have dealt a blow to Putin’s popularity. Widespread protests have shrunk it further. Earlier this year, tens of thousands of people across Russia joined anti-government demonstrations after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was imprisoned on his return to Moscow from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from a poisoning attempt by Russian agents. Stepping up the nationalistic rhetoric of “defending” Russians in Ukraine might offer a distraction from trouble at home. But evidence suggests that ordinary Russians aren’t as bothered about Donetsk and Luhansk as they were about Crimea. Back in 2015 – a year after Crimea was seized – well over 80 per cent of Russians said they supported its annexation. But recent polling shows that only 25 per cent think Donetsk and Luhansk should become part of Russia, according to surveys by the Levada Center, a Russian pollster. 
  • The escalation could be revenge against Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s trying to stamp out Russian influence in his country. In February he brought sanctions against a Putin oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, and shut down three pro-Kremlin TV stations owned by him.  
  • Or, with a new guy in the White House, Putin might be testing President Biden’s limits. Until now, the new administration’s response to Russian misbehaviour has been tepid. The US imposed sanctions on seven senior Russian government officials over the Navalny attack – but those sanctions won’t be particularly painful. However, the Americans did coordinate with the EU on those sanctions, making them an important showing of international unity. The US is also investigating Russian election interference and cyberattacks, with a view to more sanctions, so watch this space. America’s response to the Ukraine escalation has been more robust. The US is moving two warships into the Black Sea and will add 500 more soldiers to the 36,000-strong force already stationed in Germany. Tony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, warned last week that “if Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences”. 

The likeliest option is the third: that Putin is out to test Biden and NATO. So far, it’s won him a personal invitation from Biden to a proposed summit.


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

Vaccine on pause
Johnson & Johnson has delayed the roll-out of its Covid vaccine in Europe over concerns that, in extremely rare circumstances, it can cause blood clots similar to those related to AstraZeneca’s jab. This comes after the US paused its use. Six out of almost seven million recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the US developed a rare blood-clotting disorder up to three weeks after inoculation. One died. “We are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” the US Food and Drug Administration said. Common drugs (like the contraceptive pill), activities (like flying) and illnesses (like Covid) carry a far higher risk of blood clots.


New things technology, science, engineering

Darktrace
Darktrace, a cyber-security firm founded by former British security services members and maths professors, plans to list its shares on the London Stock Exchange. It’s looking to raise £3 billion. Its largest shareholder is a fund owned by Mike Lynch, who’s facing fraud charges in the United States related to the disastrous sale of his firm to Hewlett-Packard. Darktrace said it uses artificial intelligence to uncover abnormal behaviours.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Security spending
Facebook paid Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive and co-founder, $23.4 million for security at home and when travelling. The company said the spending was in response to “identified specific threats”. In 2019, when Zuckerberg’s security allowance was $10.4 million, he reportedly had armed officers outside his home 24 hours a day, a team that sweeps anywhere he goes, and bullet-resistant windows. The company, currently under fire for facilitating authoritarians’ harassment campaigns against dissidents and journalists, has suffered a number of large-scale data security breaches.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Afghan exit
The United States will pull the last of its troops out of Afghanistan by 11 September. The date marks the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. “We need to close the book on a 20-year war,” a US official said. Some Afghans hope the US withdrawal will push conflicting Afghan parties to reach a peaceful settlement. Others fear a civil war. “I wish President Biden had conditioned the troop withdrawal timeline with zero killings on the ground by all parties between May and September,” said the Afghan scholar and activist Orzala Nemat.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Trees in crisis
Just seven per cent of the UK’s native woodlands are in good health. A report from the Woodland Trust, a conservation charity, found the woods were suffering from development, imported pests, pollution, and the climate crisis. The poor state of the woods isn’t only a problem for woodland birds and butterflies, both in decline, but for the climate crisis itself. We need to cut carbon emissions and sequester them to get to a carbon neutral world. Trees can sequester carbon both above- and below-ground, and can retain more carbon than crops. They also make people happier.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Photographs Getty Images and Alamy


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