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Sensemaker: Ukraine is winning

Sensemaker: Ukraine is winning

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Ten people were killed in a racially-motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, and another shooting in California left one dead and five wounded.
  • Boris Johnson prepared legislation to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol (more below).
  • A daughter of Morad Tahbaz said the UK’s foreign office has forgotten about her father, who is a hostage in Iran.

Ukraine is winning

This is not the same as saying Ukraine will win, but it’s close. Ukrainian resilience and Russian incompetence are creating the possibility of a comprehensive Russian defeat that would make the world a better place, if only the moment can be seized. 

As the media focus on the war continues to fade and Europe wavers on the merits of a full Russian energy embargo, it’s worth noting in particular:

  • The Russian Donbas offensive has stalled. This was yesterday’s formal assessment by Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, and it’s based on evidence Russian forces i) have abandoned their goal of encircling Ukrainian troops between Izyum and Donetsk, ii) are facing sustained Ukrainian counter-attacks near Izyum, and iii) suffered catastrophic losses trying to cross the Siversky Donets river last week.
  • Finland and Sweden are confident Turkey won’t veto their fast-track applications, which are supported by the rest of the alliance and by a sea-change in public opinion in both countries since the invasion; and which mock Putin’s goal of halting Nato’s eastward advance.
  • Russia may have lost a third of its ground forces since invading and suffering defeats in the battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv, according to the UK’s defence ministry. Ukraine claimed today its forces counter-attacking north of Kharkiv have reached the Russian border.
  • Pro-Russian military bloggers are turning against Moscow. For the first time since the invasion, normally reliably pro-Kremlin voices with big online followings are calling out Russian failures instead of parroting Putin’s propaganda. One quoted by the NYT said stupidity and equipment shortages had “burned” at least one battalion tactical group, and possibly two, in last week’s river battle. 
  • Putin is losing faith in his forces, according to one of his former prime ministers. Mikhail Kasyanov tells Deutsche Welle Putin “has started to realise that he’s losing this war”, having been misled by his generals about the state of his army before the invasion and its progress on the battlefield since.

The case against this analysis rests on the sheer scale of resources Putin can call on if he wants to. Russian forces are well-placed in principle to complete the land bridge he craves from southern Russia to Crimea, and they are already reportedly regrouping for another attempt to cross the Siversky Donets. 

It’s also true that Kasyanov’s personal experience of Putin is from another age (he was prime minister from 2000 to 2004). But his assessment of Putin as badly informed and insulated from reality as his regime drifts from autocracy to dictatorship echoes precisely that of Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in a new book falling out of briefcases all over Washington – Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century.

Fighting back against spin dictators requires above all “the active resistance of the informed,” Guriev and Treisman write. Those disgruntled bloggers may be canaries in a very dark coal mine.


The Buffalo massacre should shame the world

Matthew d’Ancona

Almost two years since George Floyd’s murder, this racist atrocity should not be treated in isolation from the poisonous climate in which it took place.


Indian wheat
A ban on wheat exports by the world’s second-largest grower has driven prices up by nearly 6 per cent and compounded fears that Russia’s blockade of Odesa will cause a global spiral of hunger and food price inflation. Normally India doesn’t export much of its wheat, but this year it was planning to sell a record 10 million tonnes abroad to help compensate for the slump in Ukrainian exports caused by the war. But last month’s heatwave scorched Indian crops and drove yield forecasts down, and India’s stockpiles were already depleted by handouts during the pandemic. Meanwhile, 20 million tonnes of grain have already piled up in Ukrainian silos with no way of reaching world markets. As central bankers raise interest rates to tame inflation, Lloyd Blankfein, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, warns the likely hit to growth makes the risk of a US recession “very, very high”. Team Biden takes a calmer view, but its glide slope to the midterms still looks choppy.


Johnson goes to Belfast
The UK’s prime minister is in Belfast today trying to restart power-sharing. Before heading there he wrote a 2,000-word article for the Belfast Telegraph setting out why he thinks the EU should be more flexible about the Northern Ireland Protocol, which unionists are using as a reason not to share power with republicans. He says a lot has changed since the protocol was signed. There’s been a pandemic. War has broken out in Europe. And the protocol “was designed in the absence of a Trade and Cooperation Agreement and when it was unclear one would be agreed”. It’s true about Covid and the war, albeit largely irrelevant. As for the TCA, the whole point of the protocol was to make a TCA possible. It was unclear whether one would be agreed when the protocol was signed a) because it hadn’t been signed yet and b) because Johnson’s government had been negotiating in bad faith since taking office. He claims now to have negotiated the protocol in good faith, but his preparations to rewrite it unilaterally on the basis of problems that were entirely foreseeable when he signed it suggest the opposite.


Twitter bots
How many Twitter accounts are run by bots rather than humans? Twitter says it’s about 5 per cent. Elon Musk says it could be more and is using that idea as a pretext to slow-roll his $44 billion takeover of the platform. But how much more? He spent a good part of the weekend tweeting about Twitter bots (while meeting Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to talk about new nickel supplies for his Tesla cars), and then almost casually suggested the real Twitter bot-share could be as high as 90 per cent of daily active users. If so, by crude extrapolation, most of us are bots. Musk is looking less and less serious about buying Twitter. That doesn’t mean he won’t do it; just that he won’t take it seriously.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Newborn data
Full genomic sequencing for newborns is still, like its patients, in the early stages of development. Some tests are already common in ante-natal care (such as for sickle-cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis). But the time is coming closer when babies’ full genomes could be screened at birth for thousands of potential genetic diseases, the argument being the sooner doctors know, the sooner they can step in. It’s estimated 75 per cent of rare diseases are genetic, but curing them isn’t simple scientifically or ethically. Take Tay-Sachs, which usually kills children by age five. Would parents want to know? The Economist reports that questions like this have led Genomics England to approach plans to sequence 200,000 babies “cautiously”. The potential for a vast data set that could be invaluable to the public and private sectors is raising eyebrows too. Question: how much data is too much data?

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

No clean gas
Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s business secretary, wants to recategorise North Sea gas as “green” to make it easier to grant licences for new wells and exploration and generally expand production. There are two flimsy arguments in his favour and two robust ones against. The arguments in favour are that the carbon intensity of North Sea gas may be marginally lower than of gas from elsewhere because of efficient production and distribution; and that gas is a transition fuel to a renewable future. The arguments against are that gas is a fossil fuel whichever way you drill it, and that no euphemisms about transition will ever change this. Better surely for Kwarteng to level with voters: like the rest of the world this UK is in an almighty short-term energy squeeze because of war and post-pandemic bottlenecks, and is going to have to break a lot of promises about getting out of oil and gas while building enough renewable capacity to… get out of oil and gas.

The week ahead


16/5 – Boris Johnson visits Northern Ireland to speak with DUP leaders about rejoining Stormont; Nicola Sturgeon addresses Brookings Institution in Washington; Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey gives evidence to Treasury committee; Dementia Action week starts, 17/5 – UK unemployment figures; Police Federation annual conference held in Manchester; royal opening of Queen Elizabeth Line, also known as Crossrail, 18/5 – UK inflation figures; CBI (Confederation of British Industry) annual dinner, 19/5 – 67th Ivor Novello awards for songwriting and composing; culture secretary Nadine Dorries gives evidence to digital and culture committee, 20/5 – Neil Campbell tries to beat his bicycle speed world record; National Work From Home Day


16/5 – EU foreign affairs council meets in Brussels; Collective Security Treaty Organisation leaders including Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow; trial continues for four men criminally charged over MH17 crash, 17/5 – Finnish president visits Sweden as both countries prepare to join Nato; 75th Cannes Film Festival begins, 18/5 – Uefa Europa League final between Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers held in Seville; G7 development ministers meet in Berlin, 19/5 – German chancellor delivers statement to lawmakers on European Council meeting later this month; US PGA Championship kicks off in Tulsa, 20/5 – Biden visits South Korea and meets new president Yoon Seok-youl; deadline to declare candidacies for French parliamentary electrons; commemoration day for genocide by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 21/5 – Australian federal elections; Uefa Women’s Champions League final in Torino; 22/5 – World Economic Forum held in Davos; World Health Assembly begins in Geneva 

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.

Photographs Getty Images

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