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Sensemaker: Is Ukraine winning?

Sensemaker: Is Ukraine winning?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nato said it would send Ukraine equipment to defend against chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
  • Rishi Sunak’s spring statement on the UK economy was savaged by every newspaper in the country except the Sun (more below).
  • Girls’ schools in Afghanistan were shut by the Taliban hours after reopening for the first time since last August.
  • Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as US Secretary of State, died aged 84.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“For me war did not start on 24 February. Russians brought war to my land in 2014. So what is happening now for me is just a new active phase of it. Me and my family have already been refugees years ago. We are refugees now, again.” Listen to Volodymyr and others today and every day in Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

Is Ukraine winning?

A month into the war, it’s worth asking – and not just out of curiosity. Eliot Cohen, the distinguished US military historian, insists Ukraine is winning and that western countries’ gloomy inability to admit it is blunting what should be a more decisive strategy to help Zelensky’s government seize the day and send the Russians home. 

Here are some of Cohen’s reasons:

  • Russia hasn’t taken any big cities.
  • It doesn’t control much territory either: red blobs on maps “reflect not what the Russians control but the areas through which they have driven”.
  • Ukrainian forces are retaking territory west of Kyiv.
  • Ukrainian forces – and farmers – defeated an attack by seasoned Russian combat troops on Voznesensk in the south.
  • US intelligence conservatively estimates Russia has lost 7,000 soldiers.
  • That would suggest a total of 30,000 killed and wounded and therefore off the battlefield, or a fifth of its invasion force.
  • Most Russian airborne assaults with paratroopers have failed.
  • Russia has failed to destroy Ukraine’s much smaller air force.
  • Ukraine has the benefit of “exquisite” US intelligence on Russian intentions and operations.
  • At least six Russian generals and the deputy commander of the Black Sea fleet are reported killed.
  • There have been no Russian cyber attacks of note…
  • … and no Ukrainian capitulations.

A peculiar omission from Cohen’s list – because he is the author of a bestselling book on successful civilian war leaders (Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion) – is Ukraine’s not-so-secret secret weapon, Volodymyr Zelensky. His refusal to leave Kyiv or contemplate surrender has inspired his people, and his T-shirted appeals to foreign parliaments have helped to ensure a steady supply of essential weapons.

In addition

  • There are telling signs of dissent in Moscow. Yesterday Anatoly Chubais, the oligarch who privatised Russia and gave Putin his first job in Moscow, was seen taking cash out of an ATM in Istanbul. He has effectively defected. There are unconfirmed reports of plotting against Putin within the FSB that has served as his power base for 20 years, and a senior Russian separatist commander in Donetsk has called Putin’s assessment of Ukraine’s will to fight “catastrophically incorrect”.
  • There are telling signs of life in Kyiv. The Economist reports today that traffic is returning to its streets and bread to its shops. Petrol is no longer rationed, queues at pharmacies are getting shorter and the hryvnia’s exchange rate (unlike the ruble’s) is close to where it was on 24 February.

Cohen’s argument is that defence specialists who have made a careful study of Russian military modernisation are – intellectually at least – reluctant to give up on it. Against this

  • Russia’s army is an artillery army and despite its losses that artillery remains horrifyingly effective;
  • Reports of Ukrainian fightbacks can turn out to be exaggerated (as in Makhariv, west of Kyiv, which the government claimed to have recaptured while fighting against dug-in Russian troops continued); and
  • Putin is Putin. 

Few people inside or outside Russia believed he would actually invade. Few now would bet against him escalating.  

Know more

Untested assumptions

James Wilson

If Russia’s troops cross into Nato territory, does that mean war? World peace has been wagered for 70 years on the assumption that it does. But it doesn’t – not necessarily.



Spring statement
Rishi Sunak yesterday announced a 5p cut in fuel duty to help Britain’s drivers and homeowners cope with energy bills that are due to go up by an average of £693 a year from 1 April. He also raised the threshold at which people start paying National Insurance contributions (NICs) by £3,000 and promised a 1p cut in income tax by the end of this parliament. His spring statement was supposed to contain reassurance for hard-pressed voters and red meat for Tory backbenchers who cleave to tax-cutting as to a religion. But his tax cuts will be largely nullified by a pre-planned increase in NIC rates which he refused to reverse. Inflation rising above 8 per cent and far above wage increases will mean, as the i puts it, the biggest hit to living standards since the age of rationing. And unlike EU ministers Sunak has refused to consider a windfall tax on fossil fuel profits, so they will go on up as household bank balances go on down. No wonder not a single UK paper bar the Sun had anything positive to say about a mini-budget that shows little understanding of looming realities, and which shoves Sunak back into the peloton of prime ministerial pretenders.


Jamaica moves on
Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, told Prince William yesterday his country was “moving on” to realise its “true ambition” of being “independent, fully developed and prosperous” – without the Queen as head of state. Republican movements in Jamaica are nothing new. Previous prime ministers have pledged to dispense with the Queen’s services and little has come of it. But Jamaica is now the last of the “big four” Caribbean islands still to have the Queen as a figurehead, and there are signs this time that she may really be on her way out. A constitutional review will run this year in preparation for a referendum. Polling in 2020 by the Jamaica Herald found that 55 per cent of Jamaicans wanted the Queen to go, and support for the change was broadly bi-partisan. And now? Hard to be sure. Robert Nester Morgan, a minister in the office for the prime minister, told the BBC today the voice of the people was “the voice of God”, and impossible to predict. 


Subs and the web
What are the chances of Russia using submarines and surface ships to cut or blow up under-sea fibre-optic cables that connect the servers that constitute the web? Small but not so small they can be ignored. That was the view of Admiral Tony Radikin, chief of the UK’s defence staff, quoted by PA in January, and of an expert at the Atlantic Council writing later that month. France24 has pulled these and other threads together for an eye-catching piece that concludes the internet is probably safe from physical attack after all, because unless you’re in Madeira or the Azores it would take coordinated cable-cutting all over the world to bring it down. Still, look out for Russian trawlers off the west coast of Ireland, where 16 transatlantic cables come ashore, and for the Kerch Strait Cable, the one undersea cable taking internet traffic into Ukraine. For now, it still seems to be intact.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Children of Ukraine
Of the 3.6 million refugees who have now fled Ukraine, the UN estimates nearly half are children. That means every minute 55 children are crossing the border, mostly into EU states. The union’s temporary protection directive is supposed to ensure immediate access to medical care, schools, jobs (for adults) and housing, but experts say that’s only step one. The reality for children who have fled Ukraine is that they won’t be going home for a long time. Setting up the infrastructure for their education, safeguarding and healthcare will take time. Yesterday the European Commission outlined plans to recognise Ukrainian diplomas across the EU, provide educational material through an online School Education Gateway and offer “psychosocial support and counselling” for children. $3.4 billion in recovery funds to support the countries taking the bulk of refugees was also announced. All of which is positive in principle, but as we reported from the Polish border the reality there is a jigsaw of aid organisations relying on goodwill without much long-term strategy or coordination. 

world by numbers

10 million – people in South Korea who have been infected with Covid since the start of the pandemic; a fifth of the population.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Indian dams
Changing climate, bigger rain events and more damaging floods are putting India’s dams and those who live below them at risk. India has 5,745 dams, 293 of which are more than a century old and most of which were built in the 70s, in climatic conditions that have since changed dramatically. A long report by Scroll.in documents the lethal effects of a flood last November in Andhra Pradesh after a record 70 cm of rain in 24 hours caused a local dam to burst. At least 18 people died, and it could have been much worse. There is no good modelling of the effect of climate change on the Indian monsoon. Flash floods in Kerala in 2018, after three years of drought, killed more than 600 people.

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.

hotographs Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket, Ukrinform/Future Publishing, Bulent Kilic/AFP, Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP, Sumit Sanyal/Anadolu Agency, Maxime Popov/AFP all via Getty Images

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