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Sensemaker: Geneva showdown

Sensemaker: Geneva showdown

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Boris Johnson apologised for attending a party in his Downing Street garden two years ago, telling the House of Commons he thought it was a work event (more below).
  • The premier of Quebec province said people not vaccinated against Covid would face a new health tax.
  • North Korea claimed to have launched a missile carrying a “hypersonic gliding vehicle” designed to be almost impossible to intercept. 

Geneva showdown

A manufactured crisis in eastern Ukraine is unfolding more or less as Vladimir Putin hoped. He’s dragged the US into talks that shouldn’t be happening, brought to the boil a simmering quarrel about responsibility for European security, and kept the western alliance guessing about his next move and ultimate goal: 

  • Convening power. Last month Moscow published a draft agreement with Nato and the US proposing to end its military build-up around Ukraine if Nato agreed that a) Ukraine would never become a member and b) it would never position forces or weapons in (Eastern European) countries that joined after 1997. The proposals were non-starters and Putin knew it but they are the subject of this week’s talks in Geneva and Brussels anyway.
  • Hurt feelings. Neither EU members nor even Nato are at the main event in Switzerland, because Biden blundered at the start of this chess match by agreeing to bilateral talks with Russia over European security without Europe at the table, as if the Cold War had never ended. It was a fait accompli that infuriated Olaf Scholz on his first day as German chancellor even though he’s been too polite to say so in public. When Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator, says the US is now running things “in lockstep” with Nato, she’s playing catch-up. 
  • Guessing game. No one knows if this ends with a bang or a whimper – Putin probably included. But he’s achieved his main aim by keeping the US in receive mode while he transmits mixed signals. On Monday his deputy foreign minister called the Geneva talks deep and concrete. Yesterday his spokesman said there were no results to report. Putin has had plenty of chances to rule out invading Ukraine, and hasn’t taken them. Instead, fighter jets and attack helicopters have been sent to join 100,000 Russian soldiers near the border. 

Sherman’s name (and nickname, “The Fox”), are not the only echoes of World War Two in this mess. There are also shades of Munich as jet-lagged US negotiators struggle to fathom Russia’s real aims and Team Putin holds all the cards having changed the facts on the ground. That said…

  • Sherman has at least stated clearly there is no question of allowing Russia to dictate who is eligible for Nato membership, and;
  • there are non-military solutions, including a deal whereby Moscow stands its forces down in return for certification of Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that could double Russian gas exports to Europe.

The trouble with that kind of deal is it would accurately be called appeasement.

covid by numbers

2.7 million Covid-19 vaccines donated by the US that touched down in Manila, Philippines, on a single day last week.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Pfizer seizes the day
Thanks to its Covid vaccine, Pfizer is expected to announce it earned more than $80 billion last year. It also plans to cut several hundred sales jobs in the US as it evolves “the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world”. Translation: tech means there’s less need for face-to-face meetings, and Covid means procurement people are less keen on them anyway. The $80 billion revenue figure would be a record for a drugs company, Reuters reports, and it’s projected to rise to $100 billion this year. Pfizer says it will find alternative jobs for about half those cut from its human salesforce. The optics of job losses as it reaps a bonanza from the pandemic will still be sub-optimal, but experience suggests Pfizer won’t be too bothered. As we’ve found, it has already prioritised margins over public relations in its vaccine rollout, and a strategy of vaccinating the rich rather than the world seems to be serving it well.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Party on
Boris Johnson’s tenure in Downing Street hangs by a thread because he broke his own lockdown rules in the depths of the pandemic, and has now proved unable to admit it. Yesterday he backed himself into the position of waiting for a senior civil servant to tell him if he’d attended a party in his own garden on 20 May 2020. Today he gave the Commons a sort-of apology: he understands the public’s rage at the idea of wine and cheese in the Whitehall summer sun while law-abiding citizens stayed away from loved-ones death beds. Outside the UK it may seem crazy that the man who won an 80-seat majority on a promise of getting Brexit done and then – after a fashion – got it done, is being undone by Partygate. But his administration is based on his personality. As that deflates, punctured by his hypocrisy, all bets are off.

New things technology, science, engineering

No more tears
It turns out that tears from chopping onions can be bred away. Waitrose, the supermarket chain that bends over backwards for the UK’s Volvo class, has announced it will start selling “tearless” onions. Their wholesaler claims “Sunions” get sweeter every day they sit in your larder, but tear-free cooking comes with a catch. The volatile chemical reaction that causes streaming eyes is also what delivers a lot of the flavour. So when farmers cross-breed varieties that are less pungent they also take away a lot of what makes an onion an onion. Those decades of cross-breeding also come with a financial cost. Waitrose will be selling Sunions for 50p each – three times what they charge for an everyday brown one. If you’re cooking with kids this could be a solution. Less so if you are trying to make a great onion soup.

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

In a bid to escape Covid restrictions and a potential vaccine mandate, a community of German exiles has set itself up in Bulgarian towns along the Black Sea coast. Under a loose banner of “Querdenker” – people who think outside the box –  the group seems to have been attracted by Bulgaria’s low vaccination rate (28.2 per cent) and relatively lenient Covid measures. As der Spiegel reports, these ex-pats are a mixed bag including mild Covid-sceptics and full-blown conspiracy theorists who say the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation planned the pandemic. Some querdenker have links with far-right and anti-semitic groups too. They may just be a vocal minority, but back in Berlin the new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is still on rocky ground with his plans for a vaccine mandate. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president, said this morning that “a vaccine mandate means a debate mandate”. Scholz would be wise to listen. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

That Keeling feeling
Carbon Brief has a brilliant guest post today on the Keeling Curve, which tracks atmospheric CO2 and needs to start falling instead of rising if climate change is to be controlled. It’s brilliant for two reasons: i) it makes clear that even as global CO2 emissions plateau, atmospheric levels go on up because the natural carbon cycle can’t absorb them all and what’s already in the atmosphere stays there for hundreds of years; and ii) it focuses the mind on one crucial, mesmerising line. If we all had a real-time image of the Keeling Curve on our fridge doors, might we all start pulling together in the right direction?

Thanks for reading. Do share this around, and let us know what we’ve missed.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis

Photographs Getty Images

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