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Sensemaker: Fortress Britain

Sensemaker: Fortress Britain

What just happened

Long stories short

  • At least 17 people including women in labour were killed in a Russian missile strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol.
  • Talks in Turkey between the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers failed to produce a ceasefire.
  • US officials warned that Russia might be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine (more below).
  • Ukraine’s Winter Paralympics team paused in Beijing for a ceremony to honour victims of the war.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“I’ve managed to sleep this night, although I had nightmares all night long. I was dreaming about living in Kyiv and there were shelling and bombs falling all around us and I was trying to call my mum but she wouldn’t pick up. So I woke up terrified.“ Listen to Naliia and others today and every day in Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

Fortress Britain

In a phone call last night with Volodymyr Zelensky, Boris Johnson said Ukraine had the “unwavering support of the British people”. Perhaps, but the British consular system seems to be a different matter.

Soon after the invasion Johnson said the UK was “way out in front in our willingness to help with refugees” and that the country could take in over 200,000. As of yesterday 750 visas had been granted to Ukrainian refugees and those applying have faced mixed messages, confusion and senseless bureaucracy. 

28 February: Home secretary Priti Patel says the Home Office is creating a “bespoke humanitarian route” for British nationals and Ukrainians resident in the UK to bring their families into the country but the plan only covers “immediate” family members (spouses, long term partners, children and grandchildren under 18 and the parents of grandchildren under 18). 

1 March: The scheme is widened to include siblings, adult children, in-laws, parents and extended family. The government says a new sponsorship visa will be introduced, allowing Ukrainians without family in the UK to be sponsored by companies, individuals or community groups and granting them a stay of up to 12 months. 

6 March: 150 Ukrainians are turned away by the UK border agencies at Calais and told to apply for visas at consulates in Brussels or Paris. France’s interior minister writes to Priti Patel, calling the UK response to the refugee crisis “totally inadequate”.  

7 March: Priti Patel falsely claims that the Home Office has set up a visa application centre for Ukrainian refugees at Calais. 

8 March: Ben Wallace says the Ministry of Defence would be willing to step in to help the Home Office process visa applications, saying “we could do more to make that processing much, much quicker”.  

The UK’s visa system for Ukrainian refugees is for now, extremely limited.

  • Only family members of British nationals and people with settled or pre-settled status are allowed to apply and applicants must be immediate family members, extended family members or family members of extended family to be eligible.
  • Families of Ukrainians who are in the UK temporarily for work or study are not eligible. 
  • There has been no indication of when the UK will begin accepting applications for the Local Sponsorship Scheme for Ukraine – the proposed visa programme for those without family in the UK.

And visas have proven difficult to access. 

  • Refugees applying online have reported that the website regularly crashes and is beset by technical problems that make it difficult to upload important documents. 
  • To finalise their visas, applicants need to attend a biometric appointment at a visa application center (VAC). There are several VACs in cities around Europe but the appointments are limited. The center in Paris offered 400 appointments this week and only a quarter have been reserved for Ukrainian refugees. 
  • The government says it is “surging capacity” to process visas across the EU and is setting up a “pop-up” biometric centre in Lille. But the centre will not take bookings or walk-ins, and will only be accessible for refugees presenting at Calais who are deemed “vulnerable” by British authorities.  

The government says checks are necessary for reasons of “national security”, claiming concern about the possibility of Russian agents infiltrating the UK. 

Valentyna Klymova, a 69 year-old from Kharkiv, left Ukraine for Hungary nearly a fortnight ago. She made her way to Paris where she met her daughter, a UK resident, who planned to take her back to Britain. But she could not enter the country as she did not have a visa and, at the time, was not eligible for the Ukraine Family Visa Scheme (under the initial Home Office rules she did not count as “immediate” family). Even after the rules changed it took days of shuttling between different UK agencies in Paris to get her visa. Her daughter told the Guardian that the process “creates a kind of existential despair in Ukrainians trying to reach the UK”.

Tetyana Tsybanyuk and her 22-year-old daughter Alena Semenova drove 2,500 kilometres across Europe hoping to reach close friends in Wales only to be blocked from getting on a ferry at Calais by British border guards. They don’t have family in the UK but could be eligible for sponsored visas. Until more news comes about the scheme, they are in limbo. “The wait drags on, but nothing happens,” said Semenova. “I have an overwhelming fear about the future.”

Maria Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist, who did eventually manage to get into the UK with her British partner, told Tortoise that despite the fact she had arrived with a visa waiver she was approached by terrorism police during a two-and-a-half hour wait at the UK border: “They were sent to check up on me because they said that’s what they told to do and that arrivals from Ukraine had to be checked like that”. 

The EU has meanwhile waived the requirement for refugees fleeing Ukraine to claim asylum and given them the right to live, work and travel in member countries for up to three years visa-free. So far, the EU has taken in two million people.

Feedback for Patel:

  • “We don’t want to stand in this house and listen to plans and processes. We want dates, we want action… This is a disgrace.” Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, House of Commons, 8 March
  • “What happened to this country? In the Second World War they admitted almost immediately 70,000 Jewish people, and to find [Patel] hindering the progress of these exhausted, frightened, panicked women and their children… What has happened here? What happened to that England?” Sir Bob Geldof, London, 9 March 


War costs China
Three numbers: 147, 828, 576. These are, in billions of US dollars, the values of Chinese trade with Russia, the EU and the US respectively last year. In short: China’s trade with the West is about ten times more important to its bottom line than its trade with Russia, and the former is suffering as a result of China’s closeness to Putin. The FT has a must-read on Chinese businesses having to cope with cancelled orders from, for example, Polish and German companies that want nothing to do with an apologist for the Ukraine war. Bill Burns, the head of the CIA, told Congress this week Beijing was concerned about the reputational and economic costs of being seen to support Russia – and about the way the war had brought Europe and the US together. Two questions: will this induce Xi to tell Putin to stop, and will it induce him to recalibrate his ambitions for Taiwan?


Crimean compromise
On the surface a shameless, vengeful imperialist Russia tramples on Ukraine, which shows the world its integrity is non-negotiable. And underneath? It’s possible – no more than that – that Russia’s foreign minister realises Putin is delusional, and that his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, has been authorised to talk about a compromise. Yesterday Moscow said it wasn’t seeking to overthrow Zelensky’s government and appeared to narrow its demands to Ukrainian neutrality and a new status for Russian-occupied areas in the south and east of Ukraine. And President Zelensky has indicated he could compromise on his country’s constitutionally enshrined goal of Nato membership and even on the status of Crimea. But talks today in Turkey between Kuleba and Sergei Lavrov ended without progress towards a ceasefire. They just said they’d meet again. Lavrov stuck to the bizarre line that Russia hasn’t attacked Ukraine, so it’s hard to see what else there is to talk about. 


Chemical warning
Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, warned yesterday that Russia may be laying the groundwork for a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine, using tactics tried and tested in Syria. The warning was prompted by Russian claims, which Psaki called preposterous, that Ukraine was running chemical weapons labs with US support. More ominously still, China appears to have endorsed those claims. “We should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine,” Psaki said. There are no US-backed chemical weapons labs in Ukraine, Filippa Lentzos of King’s College, London told the AP. Just as there weren’t any in rebel-held Syria, where Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons regardless.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Covid’s back
The government’s “living with Covid“ strategy looks like it is becoming exactly that. With no social restrictions, softening mask rules and no self-isolation required if you test positive, it’s little surprise cases are creeping back up again. And for some groups and parts of the UK, it’s more than a creep. Researchers at Imperial College are particularly worried about the uptick in cases for over-55s, which could show waning immunity. Fourth jabs for over-75s and the immunocompromised are due to be rolled out in April, as mass testing ends. Across the UK, there has been a 46 per cent rise in cases week on week and – the more important number – a 12 per cent rise in hospitalisations. Deaths are still trending down but it could take a few weeks before the full impact of the uptick in cases becomes clear. Meanwhile, after battling public protest and criticism that it was encroaching on human rights, Austria’s health ministry has decided to drop plans for a mask mandate. It cites a “lack of need” because of the mildness of Omicron. 

covid by numbers

92 – low-and middle-income countries now free to produce vaccines using Moderna’s mRNA technology, with a guarantee the company will “never enforce” its patents.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Texas v BlackRock
There appears to be disunity on climate at the top of the world’s biggest fund manager. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, which has about $10 trillion in assets under management, has famously steered clients and the companies BlackRock invests in away from fossil fuels and towards renewables and net zero in recent years. That has upset Republicans in 15 US states with a combined $600 billion in pension funds. They wrote an open letter last year threatening to withdraw those funds from banks and other institutions that boycott fossil fuels, and a representative of the biggest of those states, Texas, has since met some of Fink’s subordinates to seek clarification on their plans for oil and gas investments. One result was an email in which he noted how nice it was that “BlackRock didn’t mean – or no longer believes – many of the disagreeable things the company and its CEO Mr Fink have said about the oil and gas industry”. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has the story, which, like the war in Ukraine, puts Fink on the spot. Will he swing back behind US oil and gas as an alternative to Russian energy dependence, or double down on green?

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.

Ella Hill

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Marcus Yam/LA Times/Getty Images, Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

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