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Sensemaker: From Russia with denial

Sensemaker: From Russia with denial

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia said it would open humanitarian corridors out of four besieged cities, days after its forces near Mariupol broke two ceasefires within hours of announcing them.
  • Anonymous, the hackers’ collective, claimed to have interrupted programming on state-run Russian TV to show footage of the destruction of Ukrainian cities.
  • Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said sanctions could prevent Russia endorsing a new Iranian nuclear deal.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“We use mattresses to close the windows. We believe it will protect us from broken glass in case of an airstrike attack. Just imagine a sudden large explosion and then in a moment thousands of tiny pieces break into your room… Have you ever thought that windows could be dangerous to you and your family? I bet you’ve not. We hadn’t either.” Listen to Serhii and others today and every day in Invaded – Voicemails from Ukraine

From Russia with denial

A family is killed by a Russian rocket in plain view of journalists outside Kyiv. The mayor of Mariupol says civilian deaths in his city will soon be in the thousands. A million and a half Ukrainians have fled the country. Every big city and many smaller ones are under siege or attack. And Putin’s domestic approval ratings are higher than in years. 

The worse things get in Ukraine, the more unassailable Putin seems to be at home. Russian opinion polls are not the most trustworthy, but Putin’s alternative information universe is more or less complete. Created by propaganda, willed ignorance and fear, it’s frustrating for Ukrainians with Russian relatives who don’t believe there’s a war on, and it has a bleak practical consequence. There almost certainly won’t be a coup.

This doesn’t mean the war has not produced examples of Russian courage. It has:

  • Another day of anti-war protests in Russian cities led to more than 4,300 arrests, in addition to more than 7,000 logged already.
  • Lyudmila Narusova, widow of the former mayor of St Petersburg who was once Putin’s mentor, dared to report publicly that of one group of 100 Russian conscripts sent to Ukraine, only four have survived.
  • An apparent FSB whistleblower has released a letter claiming the war will be a “total failure” and that analysts supported the invasion thinking it was a hypothetical box-ticking exercise.

But in terms of raw numbers, dissent is minimal. The crowds that have taken to the streets are tiny compared with those that protested Putin’s rule in 2012 or ejected his stooge from Kyiv in 2014. It’s not hard to see why:

  • The elites closest to Putin’s government are utterly dependent on it. As Andrei Kolesnikov writes in Foreign Affairs, there is a Russian proverb for this situation: ‘“Where do we go from the submarine?” For anyone with wealth and power… the country is now surrounded by deep water and no one can leave the boat.’
  • Many of those with money but looser ties to the Kremlin have fled – by land to Finland or air to Georgia and Armenia.
  • The vast majority cannot afford to leave and are in thrall to or trying to tune out a full-spectrum disinformation campaign that i) presents the war as a limited military operation to rid Ukraine of Nazis; ii) acknowledges only a few Russian casualties and no targeting of Ukrainian civilians; iii) has shut down all remaining independent Russian media outlets; iv) has banned Facebook and Twitter and jammed long-wave Russian-language broadcasts by the BBC and others; v) threatens Russians who dare to call the war a war with 15 years in jail.

For anyone still unsure whether the Russian police state was on a war footing, uniformed officers were reported yesterday to be demanding access to random pedestrians’ smartphones in Moscow, and scrolling them to monitor their users’ browsing.

Small wonder most people aren’t risking errant thinking. To combat the brainwashing, one Ukrainian whose father lives in Russia and insists Ukraine is basically at peace has set up a website, papapover.com, which means, “Papa, believe”.

Revisit last week’s ThinkIn on Russia’s opposition here

Know more

Johnson had a pandemic to deal with, but he also had a friend to promote

Paul Caruana Galizia 

People sick with Covid were filling up hospitals, infections were spreading far and wide, and deaths were rising rapidly. It was the third week of March 2020 – and Britain was in crisis. On 19 March, during his regular Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson told the country it could “turn the tide” on Covid in 12 weeks by “avoiding unnecessary contact” and “gatherings”.

That same day, at his private residence at Downing Street, the Prime Minister met with representatives of Lebedev Holdings, a company that owns the Evening Standard and is controlled by Evgeny Lebedev. The Cabinet Office told me that it didn’t have information on who attended the meeting aside from Johnson or what they discussed, but said the meeting was “personal/social”.

Johnson always made time for Lebedev.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Agribusiness v forests
Easily missed with so much news from the front: five of the biggest names in agribusiness have been lobbying the EU to try to water down an agreement they signed up to at Cop26 to boost forest protection. The idea was to sort products linked to deforestation from those not linked to deforestation, and ban the former from entering the EU. But eight days after the agreement was signed, representatives of ADM, Bunge, Cargill, LDC and Viterra told Frans Timmermans, the EU vice president, the scheme was not workable because it wasn’t “technically and effectively” feasible. Translation: it would cost. Greenpeace Unearthed got the story; the Guardian ran it on Friday. ADM, Bunge and Cargill are American. LDC is French. Viterra is Canadian.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperitY

Oil up and up
World oil prices almost reached $140 a barrel at the weekend as the US and EU discussed a full embargo of Russian oil and petroleum products. Such an embargo wouldn’t prevent Russia continuing to sell oil to unscrupulous customers at a discount, but it would shut off by far Moscow’s most important source of revenue. Speaking of discounts, Shell bought 725,000 barrels of Russian oil at $28.50 below the spot price for Brent crude last week, 24 hours after announcing with some fanfare that it was pulling out of Russia. It said it was a “difficult” decision, not taken lightly, but taken nonetheless to “assure continued provision of essential products to people across Europe”. Ukraine’s foreign minister asked in a Tweet if Russian oil didn’t smell to Shell like Ukrainian blood. Meanwhile the US is back in touch with the Venezuelan government it tried to remove three years ago, to talk about oil. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Inhumane” Britain
France’s interior minister says it’s “inhumane” of Britain to turn away Ukrainian refugees trying to cross the Channel to the UK from Calais. His opposite number, Priti Patel, says it isn’t happening, but France has counted 150 people told to get visas from consulates in Paris or Brussels before trying again. It wants a UK consulate opened in Calais at once. As of yesterday, the Home Office had granted a total of 50 visas to Ukrainians since the war began. In that time Poland has taken in more than 800,000 refugees and Poles and Germans have queued up, literally, to offer them free board and lodging for as long as they need it. Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, told the BBC yesterday it might undermine public support in the UK for “genuine” refugees “if we just open the door”. Either he misreads the British public or we are a very nasty lot indeed. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Tik Tok toe
Chinese-owned TikTok has suspended the uploading and live- streaming of new content in Russia, claiming it’s doing so to comply with Moscow’s new edict banning what it deems fake – ie real – news about the war. In reality, TikTok is doing a masterful piece of tightrope walking. The platform had been used to show genuine video footage from Ukraine, but also to spout approved Kremlin lines read out word for identical word by a small army of young Russian influencers. By shutting them up, TikTok can claim to be doing right by history and the world, as well as by China’s partner in Moscow.

covid by numbers

1.5 – 7.5million estimated deaths from Covid in India according to new modelling, well over the 500,000 officially reported. 

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

Ukraine surrogates
The war in Ukraine is already significantly impacting the global supply of fertiliser, wheat and metals. But there is one more unusual ‘export’ facing a crisis. More than 2000 babies are born each year in Ukraine to surrogate mothers. As one of the few places where foreigners can choose to pay relatively cheaply for a surrogate, it’s an attractive option for couples in the West. Then the Russian invasion threw the industry into chaos – putting surrogates and babies at risk. Some couples who were already on their way to pick up newborns were left stranded and surrogates, who often have their own children, fear making the long journey to the border. One of the biggest fertility clinics in the country, BioTexCom, posted a video of a bomb shelter filled with maternity supplies. The Kyiv-based clinic is expecting 200 children to be born in the next few months, essentially meaning hundreds of British and American children could be born in a warzone. In the UK, couples are lobbying Priti Patel to include surrogates in the new visa rules – see above for why that seems unlikely. 

The week ahead


7/3 – Economic Crime bill to be pushed through House of Commons in response to Russian invasion of Ukraine; treasury committee meets to discuss more effective targeting of Russia with sanctions, 8/3 – Boris Johnson hosts Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Czech leaders to discuss refugee crisis; report stage scrutiny for Nationality and Borders bill; space defence select committee session, 9/3 – Public Service Pensions bill and Health and Care bill scrutinised in Lords; food-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe speaks at select committee session; national no smoking day, 10/3 – Crufts dog show starts in Birmingham; longlist announced for Booker prize, 11/3 – Monthly GDP figures updated by Office for National Statistics, 12/3 – Welsh Labour party conference in Llandudno, 13/3 – Bafta awards held in London 


7/3 – Trial begins for former Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting unintentional second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in relation to the death of George Floyd; voting ends in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state; French deadline for sponsor collection needed to run for president; trial continues at the Hague for four Russian men charged over flight MH17 shootdown, 8/3 – International Women’s Day; Apple’s spring product launch, 9/3 – Madrid fashion week starts; South Korea presidential election, 10/3 – Russia’s Duma debates further measures to support economy in face of sanctions; International Narcotics Control Board annual report, 11/3 – Two year anniversary of WHO declaring Covid a pandemic, 12/3 – presidential election in Turkmenistan, 13/3 – US daylight savings starts; parliamentary elections in Colombia and Mali 

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 Getty Images

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