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Sensemaker: Russia invades

Sensemaker: Russia invades

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Ukraine’s foreign minister said the world “can and must stop Putin”, as Russian forces began a full-scale invasion with attacks on military targets. 
  • The price of oil passed $100 a barrel for the first time since 2007 as stocks fell in Europe and Asia.
  • Two prosecutors who had been leading the New York District Attorney’s criminal probe of the Trump Organisation resigned. 

Russia invades

Seventy-seven years without war between major European powers ended this morning with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces that appear to be attempting to seize control of the whole country. 

Vladimir Putin said he was launching a “special military operation” at the request of Donetsk and Luhansk. In reality months of build-up and years of propaganda have led to an operation with echoes of 2014 and Crimea – but also of 1956 and Stalin. 

Six hours into the invasion Ukrainian, US and Nato officials had reported

  • missile strikes on the outskirts of Kyiv and Kharkiv including on the nearest military airport to the capital;
  • amphibious landings at Odessa and Mariupol, the Black Sea port that controls land access from Russia to Crimea;
  • Russian troop movements from Belarus in the north; and
  • explosions and air raid sirens in Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine, to which most embassies have retreated from Kyiv. 

Ukraine’s airspace has been closed to civilian flights. Martial law has been declared by President Zelensky, and his defence ministry claims to have shot down five Russian aircraft and an attack helicopter. 

For anyone still in doubt, Putin confirmed his location in a parallel information universe with a pre-dawn broadcast from behind his desk in the Kremlin in which he said his goal was the demilitarisation and “denazification” of Ukraine.

It is possible that having disrupted Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with a preliminary cyber-attack and stunned the world with a Russian version of shock and awe, Putin might pause to assess his progress and absorb the international condemnation. But it is unlikely. 

To note:

  • The lesson for Putin of his military adventures in Georgia, Crimea and Syria has been that they bolster domestic support for his leadership and incur no western military push-back.
  • The lesson of the past three months is that a Nato military response remains off the table.
  • Putin’s experience of past sanctions is that they can hurt but not cripple his economy, and his assessment of new ones is much the same: they will limit Russia’s ability to borrow abroad, but their impact will be offset by continuing Chinese and European dependence on Russian gas and oil.

Ukrainians and reporters near the front line speak of an air of unreality. It is 2022, deep into the age of smartphones and TikTok, and tanks are moving in Europe as if it were 1939. 

However far they roll there will be talk of failure in the West: of French diplomacy, the international system, the UN Security Council (which Russia and China have neutered with their vetoes), and of shock therapy in the 1990s, when the US opted for gleeful lectures on free markets over a Marshall Plan for Russia. 

The roots of this crisis run deep, but the narrative of failure was also one of hope, shattered by a latter-day Tsar whom the UK’s defence minister notes has gone “full Tonto”. It would be funny, if not tragic.

To ask:

  • Is there a point at which Nato and the Pentagon will respond directly to Russian cyber-attacks on Ukraine with counter-attacks on Russia’s digital infrastructure, even if a direct military response is not an option?
  • Why were tougher sanctions not imposed sooner, including on named members of Putin’s security council?
  • What if Oleksandr Danylyuk, former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, is right when he says Putin “will not stop”? Contingency plans involving evacuation of civilians and government functions to Lviv could quickly look outdated. What then?

President Zelensky, who is Jewish, said this morning his country had been invaded “as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years”. Dmytro Kuleba, his foreign minister, has asked for “devastating” sanctions, weapons, money and humanitarian aid. History won’t look kindly on today’s crisis meetings in Brussels, London and DC if they don’t deliver.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Student loans in the UK
The UK government has revised the rules on student loan repayment, extending the repayment period for those who can afford to pay off their loans from 30 years to 40 and lowering the salary level at which payments start, from £27,295 to £25,000. So graduates with half-decent jobs will be paying off their loans into their 60s. In slightly better news for them, the interest rate will fall from the Retail Price Index plus 3 per cent to the RPI only. Student loans have expanded access to higher education by funding more places, and they’re progressive in that graduates generally earn more than non-graduates, who no longer have to subsidise other people’s higher education through their taxes. The trouble with the system is the Treasury, looking at generally tight finances and £500 billion in unpaid loans by 2050, thinks it’s unsustainable. Either way, it’ll be a battleground at the next election if not before. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

“We shall overcome”
Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is Ukraine’s best-known rock star, and yesterday he climbed onto the balustrade of a bridge over the Dnieper to sing to a small crowd that “everything will be fine”. He then told the BBC’s Nick Beake that Ukraine’s fight with Russia was for everyone who wanted to live in freedom, dignity and democracy. Stressed-out democrats from Tallinn to Istanbul will know exactly what he means. Complacent democrats separated from Europe’s new war by oceans and a comfort blanket of time zones will just have to get with the programme. “We shall overcome,” Vakarchuk said. We can but hope.

New things technology, science, engineering

Twitter mea culpa
Twitter has admitted it made a mistake suspending at least a dozen accounts posting open-source information about Russian military operations on the Ukrainian border. Researchers running the accounts suspected Russian bots of flooding Twitter’s content reporting tools with a torrent of complaints about their handles in a coordinated attack. Twitter told the FT it had seen no evidence of a bot attack – but said the pages had been flagged to its moderators for containing misleading information. Twitter spokesperson Elizabeth Busby said the site “took enforcement action on a number of accounts in error” and is “expeditiously reviewing” why they’d been taken down. 

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

Covid in Hong Kong 
As all remaining Covid restrictions are lifted in the UK, Hong Kong‘s chief executive Carrie Lam is fighting a fifth Covid wave with a strict regimen of restrictions and testing in line with mainland China’s zero Covid plans. Lam announced on Tuesday that every one of the 7 million citizens would be mandatorily tested three times next month in an effort to halt a rapidly rising Omicron spike. Flight bans, restrictions on evening in-person dining and school closures will continue into April. But severe restrictions can have severe consequences. CNN reports this morning on an 11 month-old in hospital with Covid who has been separated from her parents because of strict rules on visiting positive patients. So far Lam has denied she is acting under instructions from Beijing, but she told reporters “our motherland is giving us all the support that we need at this critical stage”. One country, one system?

covid by numbers

88 – per cent of people in low-income nations yet to receive a single vaccine dose.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Nord Stream 2 AG sanctioned
Overnight, the US announced new sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, a Swiss-based, Russian-owned company that did most of the construction work on the pipeline intended to bring Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic. Certification of the pipeline was suspended earlier this week by Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor. The new sanctions are meant to be more personal: they target Gazprom as Nord Stream 2 AG’s parent company, and Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi officer who now runs Nord Stream 2 AG. Scholz won plaudits for not hesitating to shelve certification of the pipeline on Wednesday. The question now is whether Germany could do without the gas it gets through Nord Stream 1.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Ella Hill.

Photographs Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images, Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/Shutterstock, Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

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