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Sensemaker: German arms

Sensemaker: German arms

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russian and Ukrainian delegations met for talks in Belarus as dozens were reported killed in rocket strikes on Kharkiv. 
  • The EU’s commissioner for crisis management said the war in Ukraine could displace seven million of the country’s 40 million people.
  • Putin appeared to blame Liz Truss, who has said she would support UK citizens traveling to Ukraine to fight the invaders, for his decision to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert.

Inside Suchodoiski Palace, a group of five young Ukrainian mothers were huddled in a corner, cradling toddlers and babies. They looked broken. Rooms above and beyond the foyer were packed with sleeping Ukrainians. They were the lucky ones. Paul Caruana Galizia reports from Przemyś

“I can’t eat. I can’t drink, because I literally do not feel exhaustion. I do not feel hunger. I don’t feel thirst. I’m shaking all the time and I’m working all the time… It’s so strange. I’m a scholar. I analyse literature. I translate. I’m such a peaceful person, and right now I am asking the whole world to give us more weapons.” Listen to Mariia and others today and every day in Invaded – Voicemails from Ukraine.

German arms

On day four of his invasion Putin got bogged down (more below), offered peace talks and simultaneously reached for the nuclear option. But more significant than any of his moves, whatever happens next, was Germany’s reaction. Chancellor Scholz’s announcement that Germany will send arms to Ukraine and spend an extra €100 billion on defence changes Europe’s security architecture for good.

The EU acted too. It closed its skies to Russian planes, swung behind a plan to suspend Russian banks’ use of the Swift system and said it would buy and send weapons to Ukraine – the first time it has armed a country under attack. But the German change of heart was the truly historic one, as Scholz acknowledged:

  • The invasion marks a turning point, he told a special Sunday session of the Bundestag. “It threatens our entire post-war order.” Germany is the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter but this will be the first time in decades the country that started World War 2 has sent weapons to a conflict zone.
  • Berlin authorised a direct shipment of 1,000 anti-tank and 500 surface-to-air missiles, and gave Estonia and the Netherlands permission to transfer German-made weapons in their possession to Ukraine.
  • And Scholz said Germany would, for the first time, meet its obligation to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. 

Too late? Quite possibly. As President Zelensky told Boris Johnson last night, the next 24 hours will be crucial. If Putin is as unhinged as he seems he could switch up to vastly more lethal tactics at any time, including the use of thermobaric bombs that detonate clouds of explosive aerosol and can destroy whole city blocks. If so, new hardware from the west (including from the US, which earmarked an extra $350 million to help pay for it) could arrive too late to prevent a steep rise in civilian casualties.

Three factors increase the risk Putin will escalate:

  • His war is going badly. In four days he has not taken one big city. Even with the usual caveats about misinformation, Ukrainian footage of Russian tanks and armour abandoned, out of fuel and incinerated suggest an operation slowed by bad planning, low morale and heroic resistance.
  • The ruble is tanking. It lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar this morning as analysts said Russian banks and businesses dependent on international transfers would not survive suspension from the Swift system and Russians queued up to withdraw cash from ATMs.
  • This was already expensive. Much of the $650 billion war chest Russia built up to fund this operation consists of foreign holdings targeted by the latest US, EU and UK sanctions, and the war is said to be costing $15 billion a day.

Escalate to what? Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on alert is intended a) to destabilise a Ukrainian leadership that’s also sending a delegation to today’s “peace” talks on the border with Belarus; and b) to make explicit his veiled threat last week to go nuclear against any Nato member that dares intervene directly on Ukraine’s side.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the world is at ten minutes to mushroom clouds. It means that, putting aside what Putin does, nothing is off-limits in what he says. And it’s worth remembering the Russian / Soviet military chain of command is not always reliable. In August 1991 the army sided with protesters in Moscow rather than follow orders to shoot them, and in September 1982 Lt Col Stanislav Petrov disobeyed standing orders to respond to what looked like a US nuclear strike with a counter-strike. He assumed correctly that what he saw on his screen was a false alarm.

To note: it’s easy to imagine that footage of a Russian infantry column destroyed at the weekend in Kharkiv is representative of a broader pattern, but it may not be. Politico received a dispatch from three doctors in the basement of a clinic there: “On the fourth day we live in HELL.”

To ask: why are the only Ukrainian refugees the UK is accepting those who already have family members here? How long will it take Priti Patel, the home secretary, to realise the world has changed?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

BP’s big offload
BP is selling a £25 billion stake in the Russian oil giant Rosneft after a decision by its board that the relationship “simply cannot continue”. The stake represented nearly 20 per cent of Rosneft, a state-controlled company that swallowed up Yukos, then Russia’s most successful private sector oil firm, in the early 2000s. It delivered profits of £2 billion last year, a fifth of BP’s total, but Bernard Looney, the company’s CEO, said he believed selling the stake was not just the right thing to do but in BP’s best long-term interests. Looney said yesterday he was “shocked and saddened” by the invasion of Ukraine, and resigned from Rosneft’s board with immediate effect. BP has had a huge presence in the Russian oil business for 30 years, 22 of them on Putin’s watch. Looney shared a panel with Putin in Russia last October and is said to have called it a privilege. We assume he was just being polite.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Sunflower seeds
The big, elastic unknown before the war for Ukraine was its own people. Just how unified would they feel once tanks were rolling in? Just how badly would they want the invaders to leave? It doesn’t feel like an unknown any more. Two items in evidence out of hundreds circulating online are this video of a woman offering a Russian soldier sunflower seeds that she says will grow if he dies on Ukrainian soil, and this one (scroll down) of an ethnic Russian Ukrainian national telling Russian soldiers: “You have your country. We have ours.” And advising them in salty language to go home. You can imagine Canadian truckers saying the same thing to American GIs, if pushed. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Ukraine’s IT army
On Friday we noted that Ukraine’s booming IT sector wasn’t booming any more on account of the war. Big outsourcing operations in Kharkiv and Kyiv have been closed for the duration and their staff moved out for their own safety. But not being in your usual place of work doesn’t mean not being able to fight. The WaPo reports on what Ukraine’s vice prime minister calls an “IT army” combating Russian misinformation by targeting sites that misrepresent the war, and helping physical soldiers by providing them with real-time video of Russian troop movements. One expert who finds himself stranded in Barcelona tells the Post he’s focusing on Russian sites that say the war is “not a war” and is in fact helping Ukrainians. Unlike Xi Jinping, Putin has not built an online firewall to cut the Russian people off from the wider web. He may be wishing he had. 

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

Brits choke
The UK has one of the worst death rates in Europe from conditions related to poor lung health, according to analysis from Asthma and Lung UK. The charity found that between 2011 and 2018 half a million people died from illnesses like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The only country to rank worse than the UK’s “shameful” state of lung health was Turkey. Asthma and Lung UK’s chief executive, Sarah Woolnough, called the findings a national scandal and cited a lack of research funding and of action on triggers like air pollution as some of the culprits. To note: these figures don’t include the 170,000 who have died from Covid, or the estimated 1.3 million Britons self-reporting long Covid symptoms like shortness of breath. 

covid by numbers

400 – million doses of Covid vaccine which have now been administered in Africa, a year on from Covax’s first delivery to the continent.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

A$3 billion renewables plan
Andrew Forrest, the Australian billionaire who made his fortune in mining, is committing A$3 billion to a wind, solar and battery plant 500 km north of Brisbane that he claims once built will be the biggest renewable energy “precinct” in the southern hemisphere. The project would produce up to a gigawatt of solar and wind power, with another 2GW of storage capacity in its battery. That would indeed be impressive – but not nearly as impressive as the more eye-catching SunCable plan Forrest and another Australian renewables investor, Mike Cannon-Brookes, have been promoting for years, to bring solar power from the semi-desert of Australia’s Northern Territory to Singapore, 3,000 km away. SunCable would cost ten times as much as the Queensland project in Clarke Creek. One question it faces as Australia responds to international pressure to end its own reliance on coal is whether it should really be exporting all that power rather than using it at home. Is Clarke Creek part of the answer?

The week ahead


28/2 – Nationality and Borders bill scrutinised in the House of Lords; Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins; 1/3 – Home secretary Priti Patel to overhaul unexplained wealth orders; annual rail fare increase across UK; meteorological spring starts, 2/3 – Louis de Zoysa appears charged with murder of Sergeant Matt Ratana, 3/3 – By-election in Birmingham Erdington, triggered by Labour MP Jack Dromey’s death; one year since Sarah Everard’s abduction, 4/3 – Annual Million Women Rise march to highlight violence against women and girls 


28/2 – Emmanuel Macron expected to announce presidential candidacy, fifth session of UN Environment Assembly in Kenya; 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, 1/3 – Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras celebrations; UAE assumes UN Security Council presidency for March; Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg visits Poland, 2/3 – Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell testifies to House Committee on Financial Services; Russian Federation Council meets in Moscow; Ash Wednesday, 3/3 – first meeting of Schengen Council of home affairs ministers in Brussels; documents due from Donald Trump for Trump Organization investigation by New York State attorney general, 4/3 – Paralympic winter games start in Beijing; former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to give speech in Taiwan, 5/2 – National People’s Congress annual plenary session in Beijing

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.

Photographs Marcus Yam/LA Times/Getty Images, Maxar/GettyImages, Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

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