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Sensemaker: The no no-fly zone strategy

Sensemaker: The no no-fly zone strategy

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were reunited with their families at RAF Brize Norton after being held as hostages in Tehran for six and five years respectively; and after Britain paid Iran an outstanding debt of nearly £400 million.
  • Russian forces bombed a theatre in Mariupol despite signs outside saying “children” that were big enough to be photographed from space (more below).
  • Biden called Putin a war criminal, and Putin called pro-western Russians “scum”.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“I woke up to the sound of explosions… it is such a strange feeling to not have Russian tanks in your region but at the same time you know it is not safe anywhere in Ukraine. There are a few places where people live like they are in hell. With no water, electricity, heating, food, dying in the streets and not being buried. You feel relatively safe in comparison with that. But that’s an illusion. It’s really not safe anywhere in our country anymore.” Listen to Nina and others today and every day Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

The no no-fly zone strategy

 Why does Volodymyr Zelensky keep asking for something he knows he cannot get? The answer seems to be to make sure he gets the next best thing.

This strategy of bidding for A to get B is dangerous in that it invites western responses that may embolden Putin. Assured there will be no Nato-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine under any circumstances, Russia used an air strike yesterday to bomb the Mariupol theatre in which hundreds of people are thought to have been sheltering. 

Yet something is working. British defence sources said this morning the Russian invasion had “largely stalled on all fronts”, and it’s clear that by demanding air cover and not getting it, Zelensky has helped to ensure a steady supply of urgently-needed weapons delivered by land instead.

Exhibit 1: Zelensky’s speech to the US Congress on Tuesday night. After playing his audience a harrowing short film of Ukraine’s suffering, Ukraine’s president asked again for a no-fly zone. He then promptly changed the subject: “If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative.”

“You know the kind of defence systems we need,” he went on. And within hours Biden had promised an extra $800 million-worth of them, including:

  • 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems
  • 9,000 Javelin and other anti-tank systems
  • 100 “tactical unmanned aerial systems” (reportedly Switchblade “kamikaze” drones);
  • thousands of small arms
  • millions of rounds of ammunition; and
  • enough body armour (25,000 sets) to protect a small army.

There is still the challenge of getting this materiel to where it is needed, but Russian forces don’t have command of the skies over Ukraine and overland routes from Poland and Romania remain open. 

In Afghanistan, Stingers and the courage of the Mujahedin were what removed the Russians in the end. Ukraine is now critically reliant on Javelins, whose double warheads can pierce the reactive armour bricks on Russian T-72 tanks – and the courage of Ukrainians.

Both proved vital in repelling an attack on the strategic town of Voznesensk, which guards an inland route to Odessa and which Russia hoped to take with a well-trained and fast-moving battalion tactical group on 2 March. Instead, as the WSJ reports

  • the Russians retreated with the loss of about 100 soldiers and 30 of their 43 vehicles;
  • Odessa remains in Ukrainian hands two weeks later; and 
  • Kyiv has not only not been cut off from the sea but yesterday launched counter-offensives to the northeast and northwest of the city. 

Zelensky addresses Germany’s Bundestag today. He will ask for a no-fly zone even though it’s out of the question because of the risk of direct Russia-Nato combat and escalation to a nuclear exchange. But it will be surprising if Germany – the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter – does not pledge more military aid.

To note: US intelligence sources conservatively estimate Russian military losses at over 7,000 soldiers in 20 days of fighting – more than the US lost in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Required reading: this piece from the AP on the reality of life and death under siege in Mariupol is by the only reporters left there working for an international news outlet.  


Sound money
British households and businesses are paying so much tax that public borrowing this financial year will be £23 billion lower than forecast. The FT had the number on Tuesday and it will help to shape chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring statement next Wednesday. In particular, Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation says, it will tempt Sunak to cut fuel duty to help with soaring energy costs. For more than a decade, not raising fuel duty has been Conservative chancellors’ way of signalling solidarity with van drivers, the elderly and the rural. Cutting it would be to enter new territory. Expect cheers from Tory backbenchers and loud grinding of environmentalists’ teeth. Sunak is being pulled in three directions: towards strengthening the public finances, cutting taxes and easing the pain of the energy crisis. Maybe that’s why he’s so slim.


Fall of the narco-president
A judge in Honduras has granted an American request to extradite the country’s former president to face drugs and arms trafficking charges in the US. Juan Orlando Hernandez was president for two terms, ending in January. It’s alleged that during his eight years in office he presided over a massive cocaine smuggling operation alongside his brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, who was sentenced to life on trafficking charges by a New York judge last year. Honduras has long been plagued by poverty and violence. The Hernandez presidency deepened the rot – and was supported by the US, especially during the Trump years: Hernandez was seen as a partner in the “war on drugs” and in preventing migrants from reaching the US. 


Online harms
It’s been a while – the main elements of the UK’s new Online Harms Bill have been known and debated since 2019 – but at last today it goes before the House of Commons in full. People who have been bullied, traduced and lured into self-harm online are a step closer to protection from those who have abused them, and senior executives at big tech firms can now contemplate in earnest the prospect of fines and jail time if held personally responsible for giving harmful information a platform. Opponents of the bill call it an assault on free speech. They have been marginalised by Trump and Putin. Free speech, as Julian Pike argues in the Times, comes with responsibilities. The bill should become law later this year.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

UK pensioner poverty
One in five people of pensionable age in Britain is living in relative poverty, according to a new analysis by the Centre for Ageing Better. Not everyone is feeling the pinch – the richest 20 per cent doubled their wealth between 2002 and 2018 – but inequality is growing and 80 per cent of respondents in a YouGov poll said the government was failing to ensure decent living standards for older people. The situation isn’t helped by the state pension age rising while employment levels for those approaching retirement hit their lowest rate since 2016. Michael Gove, as levelling up minister, would do well to heed the growing evidence of income and wealth-related disparities in life expectancy and time spent in good health. 

covid by numbers

77 per cent – effectiveness of AstraZeneca’s antibody therapy drug Evusheld in clinical trials at preventing symptomatic Covid, now approved for use in the UK. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

No duty of care
An Australian court has overturned the verdict in what would have been a landmark class-action lawsuit brought by eight teenagers who believe the government has a duty to protect young people from the effects of climate change. They wanted plans for a new coal mine in New South Wales to be scrapped, and won their case. The Federal Court then upheld a claim by Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, that she did not have a duty of care towards the young when considering future fossil fuel projects. “I don’t know what we expected as we crouched on the floor holding hands, hearts beating,” Anjali Sharma, one of the teenagers, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald. “But whatever we expected, it wasn’t to be walking out of court with tears rolling down our cheeks.” Ley is a former commercial pilot who has approved the destruction of koala habitat to make way for a quarry, and worked hard to undermine Unesco protections for the Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, EyePress News/Shutterstock, Felipe Dana/AP/Shutterstock

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