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Sensemaker: Spooking Putin

Sensemaker: Spooking Putin

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A Russian governor has accused Ukrainian helicopters of attacking an oil depot in the city of Belgorod, some 40km north of the Ukraine Russia border. 
  • UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov are both in Delhi seeking the support of the Indian government.  
  • People across the UK face an unprecedented hike in their domestic energy bills from today. 
  • Hundreds of patients in England with type 1 diabetes are testing an artificial pancreas which experts say could transform the lives of people who have the disease. 

Spooking Putin

The Russian war effort in Ukraine is in trouble. Vladimir Putin has misjudged the situation and his advisors are too afraid to tell him the truth. Those are the striking claims made by the United States and UK intelligence agencies. 

What are the spies saying? The head of the UK’s cyber and security agency, GCHQ, said Russian soldiers are short of weapons and are refusing to carry out orders. Sir Jeremy Fleming emerged briefly from the shadows to give a speech in Australia. He said Russian soldiers were sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft. Hours earlier officials in Washington – in what looked a lot like a coordinated move – said Putin didn’t know his military was using conscripts. They said there was tension between the Russian president and the country’s Ministry of Defence. 

And just in case you hadn’t got the message yet, the UK’s Defence Chief, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, was on hand to say, in a speech in London, that Putin had already lost the war. He described Russia’s tactics in Ukraine as “insane”. 

What are the Russians saying? Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said Washington doesn’t have any “real information” about his boss. “They don’t understand the decision-making mechanism, and they don’t understand our style of work”, he said.  

What to make of this? As ever when dealing with declassified intelligence it probably pays to think about who the intended audience was. In this case it’s not entirely clear. Was it Putin himself? His inner circle or his advisors? Western allies? Jeremy Fleming pointed out that a lot of intelligence has been declassified to get ahead of Putin’s actions, as he put it. But he didn’t provide concrete evidence to support any of his new claims. 

The danger If the Western intelligence agencies are right, how might Putin react? It’s safe to say he probably wouldn’t like being lied to by his advisors. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned it might make it harder to get him to sign up to a peace deal. “You don’t know how a leader like that is going to react to getting bad news…it’s disconcerting”, he said. 

The cost of getting it wrong There was a reminder on Thursday that Western intelligence agencies aren’t always on the money. The head of French military intelligence, General Eric Vidaud, resigned after just seven months in the job. He was blamed for “inadequate briefing” and concluding that it was unlikely that Russia would invade Ukraine.  

Where does this leave Putin? Authoritarian regimes have a habit of imploding, often quite quickly. As a former Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, puts it Putin “miscalculated everything” and that means there is “always a chance” of a revolution. The West had hoped tough economic sanctions would send the economy into freefall. While Russia’s economic prospects aren’t good –  forecasters expect the economy to shrink by 10 per cent this year, it’s not all bad. 

  • The rouble has bounced back to near where it was at the start of the war.
  • Stocks have recovered much of their losses in late February. 
  • A run on the banks has ended with many Russians returning their money. 
  • Sales of oil and gas are, for the time being, providing the Kremlin with billions of dollars a month in foreign currency.

To consider. A poll published on Thursday suggested Putin is enjoying his highest approval ratings among Russians for five years. According to the Levada Centre – the closest Russia has to an independent polling organisation – eighty-three per cent of Russians approve of his actions. That’s up 14 points from January. 

Know more

An empire strikes back

Jon Jones

Forty years ago, on 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, British overseas territories some 300 miles off the coast of South America. Margaret Thatcher responded by sending a naval task force to the South Atlantic. 

In the six-week war that followed, 255 British servicemen, 649 Argentines and three female civilians would be killed. We’re marking the anniversary of the Falklands with an essay of photos taken by soldiers and photographers on both sides of the conflict. It’s published online today and in Anniversary, the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories.


Stock splits
As is becoming the norm for Tesla, major decisions are announced on Twitter. This week the company announced a shareholder vote on a stock-split. It follows similar proposals from Amazon and Google’s parent company Alphabet. All three saw market jumps as a reaction. But what is a stock-split? The fundamentals are that a company, as it says on the tin, splits their stock at a ratio. Like 10 for 1. So if your share price was at $1000 you now have 10 shares at $100 each. To note: it doesn’t change the value of the company, but does increase the liquidity. That’s key. In a post-Gamestop world where memes and CEO tweets can influence Wall Street, the availability of stocks for retail investors is a potential plus. Tesla’s stock surged by eight per cent on Monday, as did chatter about the company on forums like Reddit – much like 2020 when they last split their stock. The Reddit effect might be new, but stock splits in principle are not. According to Bloomberg analysis, the last surge was in 2006-7 when 41 companies did so. What’s more interesting is that Alphabet, Amazon and Apple (they also split stock in 2020) are in line with Tesla on this who so far have avoided the meme-ification that Elon Musk fuels. It’s a waiting game to see the long term impacts. 


Freedom be damned
Voters in Hungary go to the polls on Sunday in parliamentary elections. The authoritarian Viktor Orbán is seeking a fourth term as prime minister but he’s facing a strong challenge from Péter Márki-Zay, the leader of a coalition of opposition parties. You might think that Orbán’s closeness to Putin would be a problem. It has certainly cost him some support, but Orbán’s Fidesz party is still around three points ahead in the polls. The Hungarian leader’s defence of peace at home – no matter the cost to Ukraine – has worked to shore up his base. According to Politico, 91 per cent of Hungarian opposition voters felt Moscow was the aggressor in Ukraine, compared to merely 44 per cent of those voting for Fidesz. That means the war is unlikely to turn those inclined to support Orbán against him. Is it such a surprise? A study published last month on freedom of expression in Hungary showed the state had restricted free expression and co-opted cultural institutions to promote its own nationalist narrative. Hungarians have been fed a diet of perpetual information control. 


Genome puzzle solved 
Scientists have sequenced the first-ever complete human genome. Researchers mapped 92 per cent of the genome nearly 20 years ago. The final portion proved harder to work out. “That remaining eight per cent or so of the human genome is really messy stuff,” said Dr Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, in a press briefing on Thursday. The missing parts of the genome were highly repetitive and difficult to piece together. These tricky bits of genetic data have sometimes been called “junk DNA”.  The scientists’ findings show they are incredibly valuable, containing information about our responses to pathogens, drugs and the development of certain cancers. With the whole genome mapped, we’ll be able to understand more about diseases, genetics and even human evolution. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Living with Covid
From today mass testing of people in England for Covid ends. It means you’ll have to pay for lateral flow and PCR tests. There are exceptions: the immunosuppressed, if you are being admitted to hospital, if your GP asks you to and for some NHS staff and adult care workers. If you’re not in one of those categories expect trips to a pharmacy or supermarket to pick up a test. Boots and Tesco are selling a single LFT for £2. To note: if you are travelling abroad and require an LFT, you’ll still need to cough up for one of the higher-priced ones. And the impact of these test changes? Not every country has had free testing throughout the pandemic, but as the most recent Office for National Statistics analysis of lifestyle change shows it hasn’t taken long for us to socialise and leave the mask at home. Other concerns include the increased cost for care home visitors, who aren’t currently included on the exemptions list, and the impact on workplaces as many report high absence rates while the BA.2 sub-variant rips through the country. One question to ponder: testing capacity is likely to reduce considerably – will it be easy to increase it again if there is a variant of concern? 

world by numbers

54  – percentage rise in the UK energy price cap from today, adding £693 a year to the average bill. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Dirty rivers
The UK government says it is taking urgent action to curb sewage discharges into rivers in England. Data released by the Environment Agency on Thursday showed water companies allowed more than 372,000 spillages from sewer overflows in 2021. The new government target aims to reduce the amount of raw sewage which water companies put into rivers in England and Wales by 40 per cent by 2040. Such discharges are legal when heavy rainfall leads the systems to overflow. This year’s figures are marginally better than 2020, but still make England’s rivers among the most polluted in Europe. 

And finally a South Korean zoologist says he has bred the world’s fastest tortoise. Named after the country’s fastest runner, it is hoped Kim Kuy-young will reach maximum speeds of up to 2km an hour when he is a full-grown adult in 20 years.  

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.

Jasper Corbett

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Ella Hill and Ellen Halliday.

Photographs Fadel Senna/AFP, Alexei Nikolsky/AP/Shutterstock, Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency, Akos Stiller/Bloomberg, Karwai Tang/Getty Images, Warren Little/Getty Images

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