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Sensemaker: Twist or bust?

Sensemaker: Twist or bust?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US vetoed as “untenable” a plan to send Polish MiG fighters to Ukraine via an American base in Germany.
  • The US and UK banned Russian oil imports while the EU refused to join a broader embargo.
  • McDonalds suspended sales in 850 restaurants in Russia, 32 years after its first branch there offered astonished crowds a taste of capitalism in a bun.
  • The number of UK visas issued to Ukrainian refugees rose from 50 to 760 as the number of refugees to have entered EU countries with permission to stay and work for at least three years passed 1.9 million.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“But he is always shouting and screaming and crying… and all these sounds, mixed with doors that he pulls or pushes… the sound reminds me of the sound of shooting.” Listen to Kseniya and others today and every day in Invaded – Voicemails from Ukraine

Twist or bust?

Putin is done, says Britain’s defence secretary. And yet Russian forces continue to advance and kill. How to make sense of the fact that both sides in Europe’s war seem to be winning and losing at the same time?

A suggestion: all four scenarios are true and happening at once, in overlapping sequence, in different parts of Ukraine:

Russia advances. The 40-mile military column north of Kyiv remains stuck there but that is only one of nine “axes of advance” on the Ukrainian capital, according to RUSI’s Sam Cranny-Evans. And Russian forces are “progressing well” along at least five of the others.

Their aims are to encircle and take the capital, cut it off from the Black Sea and build a land bridge from Russia to Crimea and possibly beyond, to Transnistria, the Russian-dominated borderland between Ukraine and Moldova. Their methods are brutal but effective. Their failure to secure air supremacy is largely irrelevant. As Cranny-Evans notes: “Russia’s army is an artillery army.”

Ukraine suffers. The UN estimates Ukrainian refugee numbers have now passed 2 million, and they are the lucky ones. 5,000 were evacuated along a humanitarian corridor from Sumy in the north yesterday but in Kharkiv and Mariupol hundreds of thousands including those too old and weak to move are at the mercy of bombardment tactics honed in Syria and Grozny. In Mariupol bodies lie in the streets. There is no water, heat or power. Phone and sewage systems are down. The UN’s Natalia Mudrenko says 430,000 people “have effectively been taken hostage”.

Ukraine resists. An army modernised since 2014 has destroyed whole detachments of Russian armour with anti-tank weapons from the West. Tens of thousands of civilian reservists have stayed to fight. Snipers have helped to slow the invasion and sap morale. Ukrainian forces with Stinger missiles claim to have shot down 40 Russian helicopters. An unprecedented airlift delivered $300 million of US military hardware to forward bases in Romania and Poland last week alone, to be trucked in overland, and President Zelensky, in a historic address by video link to the House of Commons, said Ukraine would go on fighting “in the forests, on the shores, in the streets”.

Russia fails. Putin’s bid to take Kyiv with paratroopers fizzled in hours. Hopes that Russian convoys might be welcomed as liberators were dashed as quickly. Thousands of Russian troops are dead and sanctions on Russian reserves, banks, airlines, industry and oligarchs have left it more isolated than at any time since the Cold War. 

“Whatever we think about President Putin, he is done,” Ben Wallace, the UK’s defence secretary, claimed yesterday. “He is a spent force in the world.” That may be optimistic, but history augurs ill for Putin unless he can persuade Russia its army is winning. Russian military defeats (Crimea 1856, Japan 1905, Europe 1917, Afghanistan 1989) tend to bring upheaval at home.  

Another paradox: for now, both sides are simultaneously winning their information wars, because they are separate affairs. “Ukraine is smashing it,” Cranny-Evans told Tortoise last night. Its social media offensive, mocking Russia’s might with footage of tractors towing tanks out of the mud, sweeps all before it. But Russia’s narrative of a just and successful war of self-defence is overwhelmingly dominant within its own borders. And anyone who doubts such mass delusion can endure need only look to the US, where despite a vigorous free press tens of millions still believe the 2020 election was stolen. 

Know more

Who is Downing Street’s most influential foreign policy adviser?

Lara Spirit

Last year, a friend sent me an article on ‘The Perils of the Court Historian’. Court historians, the author wrote, were those who “had muddied their knees in the swamp”; historians-turned-practitioners who made the leap from academia to politics, hoping to “translate success in the intellectual realm to influence in the world of power”.

Months after it was published, the writer of this article was to find himself in Number 10. John Bew had made the jump from War Studies professor to Boris Johnson’s policy unit. He had himself become a court historian. And he was to become among Johnson’s most trusted and longstanding advisers as prime minister. 

Bew now has more influence on UK foreign policy than the foreign secretary or, arguably, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).


Pay gap bot
Yesterday was International Women’s Day – which meant among other things a deluge of corporate and institutional social media posts “celebrating“ women. But companies thinking they could get away with posting an inspirational quote and a slick infographic were in for a surprise. They found that a Twitter bot (@paygapapp) was retweeting their posts along with their latest gender pay gap data including the percentage difference in median hourly pay between men and women. Of note: Barclays (34.5 per cent), Goldman Sachs (36.8 per cent), RyanAir (a whopping 68.6 per cent), Misguided (40 per cent), Youngs Pubs (73.2 per cent) and a swathe of schools, universities and NHS trusts with disappointing gaps, all in favour of men. For perspective, the average across the UK is 10.2 per cent. There were ways to get around the public shaming, for instance by reposting with hashtags that wouldn’t be picked up, removing the hashtags altogether, blocking the bot account or deleting the tweet entirely. But activists quickly reported any account that seemed to be trying to dodge the bot. See this thread for more culprits, and for a detailed breakdown on corporate responsibility in the FTSE, including the pay gap, see our Responsibility 100 Index.


Z for “Za”
The white Z’s on Russia’s tanks and trucks in Ukraine have become a symbol of hard-boiled wartime Russian nationalism. They are going up on billboards across Moscow as McDonald’s, PepsiCo and virtually every other sign of western indulgence goes dark. Masha Gessen has a piece in the New Yorker on how, “over the course of a few days, [the “Z”] has come to stand for loyalty, devotion to the state, murderous rage, and unchecked power”. It’s not just on billboards now, but in the official new spelling of Kuzbass (previously Kusbass) in Siberia, on a Russian gymnast’s chest, all over the St Petersburg metro and on a placard outside the Russian consulate in Sydney. What does it mean? Unclear, but it stands for “za”, Russian for “for”, so it can mean anything. Does it carry graphical echoes of the swastika? You betcha.


Electric suit
No one said bringing a new EV to market was easy. Even Tesla made it look hard. Now one of its mini-rivals, Rivian, is being sued by a mini-investor who claims it underpriced its vehicles before going public, knowing it would have to raise prices afterwards. Charles Crews, the plaintiff, bought 35 shares in Rivian for about $112 each on its first day of trading last November, and has since lost more than half his investment. The shares are now trading at around $42 and Crews claims that’s because the company has raised prices on its pre-ordered electric pick-ups by up to $20,000. Crews alleges foul play to juice the company’s flotation. Rivian blames global inflationary pressures. The WSJ has the story. It’s interesting because you’d have to be in hiding not to know those pressures are real, and yet there’s something plausible about the complaint. Even Rivian’s own CEO admits the price increase was “wrong”.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Rishi’s headache
First Covid, now this: energy bills for UK householders on fixed-rate tariffs could reach £4,000 a year once the price cap is lifted on 1 April and the full cost of doing without Russian energy becomes clear. Most customers will face increases in the hundreds rather than the thousands of pounds, but those whose fixed rates meant they under-paid last year could see them rise to up to £4,172 if they can’t switch to a variable tariff, the Mail reports. Why bracket energy with Covid? Because these kinds of sums are unaffordable for most, and finance ministers may have to step in to help households and small businesses on a scale comparable to that of Covid relief schemes. This is a particular headache for the UK’s Rishi Sunak because the price cap is UK-specific. It will rise by 54 per cent from £1,277 to £1,971 in three weeks’ time. Those old enough to remember are hearing echoes of 1973.

covid by numbers

6 million – people who have died from Covid, worldwide.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Emissions record
The International Energy Agency confirmed yesterday what many already assumed: the Covid blip of carbon emissions reduction as most of the world ground to a halt in 2020 was just that – a blip. In fact, 2021 saw the largest absolute rise in carbon emissions (6 per cent) since the industrial revolution, with increasing China’s coal usage the main cause. Renewable energy use also reached an all-time high and the current crisis is forcing countries to reassess energy usage in fundamental ways, but for now there’s not much sign of the Covid blip becoming a trend.

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, Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

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