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Sensemaker: Truth to power

Sensemaker: Truth to power

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US national security advisor warned China in an “intense” seven-hour meeting in Rome against providing Russia with weapons for its war in Ukraine. 
  • China placed 17 million residents of Shenzhen under lockdown to combat its worst Covid outbreak in two years.
  • Tulip Siddiq MP said Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British passport had been returned to her, as an Iranian source said the UK had paid a longstanding £400 million debt to Tehran and that Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her fellow hostage Anoosheh Ashoori would be released.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“On Saturday I came to know that pro-Ukrainian activists and local governors are kidnapped in Kherson city, and I was thinking about one journalist I knew there… and in two hours I read on the news that he had disappeared…” Listen to Nina and others today and every day in Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

Truth to power

Truth to power. 250 million viewers. Five seconds. Fifteen years. These are the numbers that tell the story of Maria Ovsyannikova’s extraordinary protest last night on Russia’s main state-run TV channel as a Kremlin mouthpiece read the news.

Channel 1 has nearly twice as many viewers worldwide as there are people in Russia – and tens of millions more than consume uncensored news about the Ukraine war. Ovsyannikova, a producer on the main news bulletin, ran on set behind the newsreader shouting “stop the war” and holding up a placard with the message: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”

The network cut away in just over five seconds. Ovsyannikova was arrested and now faces up to 15 years in jail. Her courage was underlined by

  • the failure of anyone in power in Russia to challenge Putin’s war plans before the invasion or since; and
  • a pre-recorded video released after the protest in which Ovsyannikova said she was ashamed of her work producing “Kremlin propaganda” and of allowing the “zombification of the Russian people”. She blamed Putin for the war and called on Russians to “stop this madness”.

The protest was fleeting but had vastly wider reach than any on the streets of Russian cities, all of which have been ignored by state-run media. It went viral on social media, where Russians who want uncensored news can still get it despite the closure of Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.

  • Telegram, founded by two Russian brothers, has become the app of choice for those seeking to get round wartime censorship. It hosts partially-encrypted channels without ads or any limit on the number who can access them. It doesn’t use algorithms to direct content to users – but does host Kremlin propaganda as well as real news.
  • VPNs – virtual private networks – let web-browsers in Russia appear to the authorities to be elsewhere. Their use by Russians has risen six-fold since the invasion but may now plateau because they aren’t free and payment by Visa or Mastercard is now impossible.
  • Tor-specific versions of news websites allow users to access them via so-called onion services. This is polite language for the dark web, where browsing is supposed to be untraceable. Twitter, the NYT, the BBC and ProPublica have all rolled out Tor-specific versions of their sites.

Putin is nearly three weeks into a war he hoped would be over in days. Its outcome may be determined in the end by the battle for Kyiv and negotiations with Beijing (on which more tomorrow and on Thursday), but domestic propaganda is still critically important to his strategy. To prevail, his lies must be believed. 

Most social media platforms are down in Russia and tens of millions of Putin’s subjects are passionately invested in his alternative world view anyway. They believe Ukraine is run by Nazis and poses a threat to their country, and will consider Ovsyannikova a traitor. 

But her protest is more than a shout in the wilderness. It took place in a studio in the Ostankino TV tower in northern Moscow where Putinism began with a raid on the independent NTV channel 22 years ago. Putinism could end there, too.

Macron’s Metternich moment

James Wilson

All eyes are understandably on Ukraine. But the conflict comes at a crucial time for another country: France


Roman Abramovich
A newly uncovered document claims that Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who the British government sanctioned last week over his links to Vladimir Putin, cheated the Russian government out of $2.7 billion when he bought Sibneft, an oil company, from the government in a rigged auction in 1995. He paid $250 million for the company and then sold it back to the government in 2005 for $13 billion. The document also claims that Russian authorities wanted to charge Abramovich with fraud. The broad outlines of the scheme by which he became a billionaire were already known, not least because he confessed to them – and effectively to a $10 million bribe to a senior member of the Yeltsin administration – during a London court battle with his former mentor, Boris Berezovsky, ten years ago. But the document examined on last night’s BBC Panorama may be the first to attempt to incriminate Abramovich from within Russia’s security apparatus. 


Homes for Ukraine
The British government said more than 43,000 people in the UK signed up to its Homes for Ukraine programme. The scheme allows people to offer space in their homes to named Ukrainian individuals who have fled the war. Hosts will receive a £350-a-month payment while hosting. The public response is generous, but the problems have always been elsewhere. Visa applications remain long and onerous, and many Ukrainians will lack the required supporting documentation, which those seeking refuge in EU countries don’t need.


Russian Insta ban
Instagram is no longer available in Russia. The country’s media monitoring agency Roskomnadzor said last week it would ban the company after Meta, its parent company, loosened hate speech restrictions to allow users to call for an end to violence in Ukraine and for the deaths of Russian soldiers. Russia banned Facebook in early March, and Twitter appears to have also been banned, as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on free speech and accurate information about the war. TikTok is down too, and disconsolate influencers used farewell posts to lament its suspension.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

British Covid
The British government is to scrap the last of its Covid travel restrictions. From 4am on Friday, there will be no need for passenger locator forms and no requirement for unvaccinated arrivals to get tested. Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the changes “mean greater freedom for travellers ahead of the Easter holidays”. They will also add to the 444,201 cases recorded in the past week, a 48 per cent increase on the previous week, and to the 10,576 hospitalisations, a 19 per cent increase.

covid by numbers

130… world leaders, scientists, humanitarians, and others marked the second anniversary of the pandemic by signing The People’s Vaccine open letter, calling for an end to “vaccine monopolies” that restrict global access to Covid vaccines.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Windy security
Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s business secretary, wants a massive expansion of wind farms for national security reasons. The government is considering sweeping changes to planning laws to bolster Britain’s energy independence. “This is no longer about tackling climate change or reaching net-zero targets,” Kwarteng said on Twitter. “Putin can set the price of gas, but he can’t directly control the price of renewables, and nuclear we generate in the UK.” For a detailed look at why fracking isn’t the answer, read this week’s Net Zero Sensemaker. 

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Paul Caruana Galizia

Photographs Getty Images

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