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Sensemaker: Hot peace

Friday 28 May 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • France and Austria had to cancel flights to Moscow after Russia said they couldn’t land because they weren’t using Belarusian airspace.
  • Germany put aside €1 billion for reparations for descendants of Namibian victims of colonial-era “genocide”.
  • Neymar Jr and Nike parted ways over claims the footballer sexually assaulted a Nike employee.

Hot peace

Joe Biden has a meeting in three weeks with a man he’s called (with good reason) “a killer”. In the meantime, Vladimir Putin’s armed forces have staged large-scale exercises on Russia’s border with Ukraine. His foreign ministry has praised Belarus’s skyjack of a civilian plane in order to arrest a dissident, and his spies have been blamed for yet another hack of US government computer networks.

What to do? What to say?

This is Biden’s quandary as he prepares for his first one-on-one as president with Putin, in Geneva on 16 June. It’s not an obvious win-win.

The latest. Hackers linked to Russia’s main foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, have been identified by Microsoft as behind another hack of US government systems, co-opting an email service used by the US Agency for International Development as a Trojan horse for phishing emails sent to 150 other organisations. These include other US government departments, and NGOs apparently targeted for being critical of Putin. 

(As a reminder, Washington is still smoothing its lapels after the indignity of the SolarWinds hack, also traced back to the SVR, which accessed systems at the Department of Homeland Security and US nuclear laboratories and was not detected for nine months.)

The strategy. A long article published in Foreign Affairs in January by Michael McFaul serves as a working facsimile of Team Biden’s emerging strategy for dealing with a renegade Russia after four years of mixed signals and partially reciprocated presidential bromance under Trump. McFaul is a former US ambassador to Moscow and Obama administration advisor. He advised Biden to:

  • contain the Russian cyberthreat by spending more on cyber defences, especially for US banking systems, and building more of these defences in-house rather than relying on commercial software;
  • block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas direct to Germany across the Baltic; 
  • repair relations with truculent Nato members susceptible to Russian influence, especially Hungary and Turkey; and
  • do everything possible to help Ukraine survive as an intact, functioning democracy, including beefing up Nato’s presence elsewhere in eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.

The problem. US action has been preempted on all these fronts. The latest SVR-backed hack follows another spectacular piece of Russian cybersabotage, of the pipeline network that delivers oil from Texas to the East Coast. Angela Merkel has insisted that Nord Stream 2 must go ahead. Hungary has refused to join western condemnation of Belarus; Turkey likewise in relation to China and the Uyghurs. And Russia’s recent show of force on Ukraine’s eastern border dwarfed anything Kiev could muster even with American help.

The solution. In a word, patience.

Sanctions – even onerous ones targeted at named individuals – have enraged the Kremlin without obviously deterring bad behaviour. Military conflict is out of the question. Strengthening Nato is important in the long term but tends to backfire with Team Putin (Crimea, Syria, Georgia).

McFaul’s prescription is based on waiting until Putin goes and in the meantime seeking cooperation in tightly defined areas like nuclear non-proliferation, climate change mitigation and fighting Covid. 

Any opportunities to peel off potential Putin allies should be taken. In the circumstances it is probably a good thing that the odious Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, is having tea today in Number Ten.

New things technology, science, engineering

Dark matter
It’s everywhere. A new map of 100 million galaxies suggests that dark matter is spread more evenly across the cosmos than expected. In a visualisation by the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration, it looks beautiful; more like a Krasner/Pollock collaboration. This is because the dark matter, which is in fact invisible, is rendered mauve. Galaxies are golden and voids where there really is nothing are black. And there are fewer voids than the collaboration’s scientists expected based on Einstein’s theories of the origin and expansion of the universe. So what? Well, those theories could be wrong. “The current theory rests on very sketchy pillars made of sand,” says Professor Carlos Frenk of Durham University, who has spent much of his career working out what the universe should look like based on what it did look like in its infancy. “What we may be seeing is the collapse of one of those pillars.” 

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

Fixable clots
There could be a straightforward way of eliminating the clots that appear to form in a very small number of recipients of so-called viral vector Covid vaccines like those from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. The problem is the vector, say German scientists at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. In about one in 100,000 cases it misdirects genetic coding instructions for the coronavirus spike protein to the cell nucleus rather than the fluid around the nucleus. Fix that coding, the theory goes, and the problem goes away. Both manufacturers are working on it. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Indonesian coal
One of the world’s most avid coal-burners is trying to kick the habit. Indonesia says it will phase out its dirtiest coal-fired power plants by 2030, its next dirtiest by 2040 and its cleanest – not that even “ultra supercritical” plants are clean from a climate perspective – by 2056. This would be real progress for a country heavily dependent on coal despite huge solar, geothermal and hydropower potential. Last year President Joko Widodo called for upgrades rather than replacements for coal-fired stations. Has the prospect of owning up to this at COP26 led to a change of heart? 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Naomi Osaka
Japan’s tennis superstar says she won’t be giving any of the ritual post-match press conferences at this year’s French Open, for the sake of her own mental health, even though tournament rules say she’ll be fined $20,000 for every one she misses. That could be quite a few. Osaka is the world No. 2 and has reached the third round of the French Open three times. But she can afford it. She’s won close to $20 million in prize money and that excludes sponsorship income. There’s an argument that press inquisition has to come with the territory because without it there wouldn’t be the interest… or the prize money. I don’t buy it. If she doesn’t want to answer questions, good for her. She’s not a politician. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Cities without highways
Imagine LA without freeways. You don’t have to. The NYT has put together an extraordinary collection of scrollable pictures of American cities before and since the post-war highway-building boom. Why? Because some of them (Rochester, Syracuse, Detroit, Oakland and others) are considering tearing them up and going back to quieter, calmer urban communities with better air and a radically different approach to mobility. It’s easy to forget that progress isn’t all in one direction. 

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images

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